I am really worried about priorities..

I am really worried about priorities..

❖ On a recent science post about the evolution of land plants, a community member worried: “what about poverty?? people are dying in hunger, lack of medical support, clean water and other simple things which can be fixed… but without fixing something for them we are trying to find water in Mars. I’m really worried about the priorities..”

❖ A similar comment lamented the cost of curiosity in the search for earth-like planets (http://goo.gl/9OUM0D). Physics professor Robert McNees had an awesome response:

❝ You posted your comment using technology that exists only because of a chain of discoveries and insights that began with fascination-driven research in the late 19th century.❞

❝ If Balmer hadn’t studied spectral lines, Planck may not have proposed the quantum. Then Bohr may not have conceived his model of the atom, which means Heisenberg and Schrödinger wouldn’t have developed their formulations of quantum mechanics. That would have left Bloch without the tools he needed to understand the nature of conduction in metals, and then how would Schottky have figured out semiconductors? It’s hard to imagine, then, how Bardeen, Brattain, and Schockley would have developed transistors. And without transistors, Noyce and Kilbey couldn’t have produced integrated circuits.❞

❝ Almost every major technological advance of the 20th and 21st centuries originated with basic research that presented no obvious or immediate economic benefit. That means no profit motive, and hence no reason for the private sector to adequately fund it. Basic research isn’t a waste of tax dollars; it’s a more reliable long-term investment than anything else in the Federal government’s portfolio.❞

GIF: Johns Hopkins professor Andy Feinberg spent several days on NASA’s zero gravity aircraft (known as “vomit comet”) trying out different pipetting techniques for future experiments in space. It wasn’t that easy with flying pipet tips and tubes! Andy did eventually figure out the best technique (using positive displacement pipets, seen in the second video in this link http://goo.gl/AFpnJq). Feinberg is leading one of ten experiments in NASA’s Twin Study to examine epigenetics and other biological changes that affect astronauts in space. Samples from Scott Kelly, who is spending a year onboard the ISS, will be compared with those from his twin on earth, Mark. Feinberg credits NASA for funding this study. He says, “They’re very curious people. They really want to know.”

Who knows, one day we may even grow potatoes on Mars! 🙂

Share your favorite example of the unexpected benefits of basic research! 

Shout out to Gnotic Pasta  who made the GIF. Thanks, Dan! 

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89 Responses to I am really worried about priorities..

  1. Jim Carver says:

    I suppose that’s useful for someone who never thought about it .

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    It’s a fairly common argument against funding basic research, actually. 

  3. Rajini Rao says:

    Haha, Gnotic Pasta , it was serendipity (like most scientific discoveries) that juxtaposed the potato comment with my favorite Idahoan. 

  4. Jim Carver says:

    Rajini Rao Gnotic Pasta Anybody that needs to be told this wasn’t paying attention and probably isn’t worth the time to begin with. I think I thought about this when I was about six years old.

  5. Rajini Rao says:

    Jim Carver you said, “probably isn’t worth the time to begin with”. That’s why I’m doing science outreach and you’re not 😉

  6. Jim Carver says:

    Rajini Rao I do outreach, but only for those who have a fidgeting chance. Anybody that hasn’t got this down already is a lost cause.

    It’s just too basic. And I’ll tell you at six, in 1964, it wasn’t as clear cut as now either. We still had five years to go until we reached the Moon.

    And then did it…and then crapped out. All the outreach in the world can’t stop the bean counters…and the last three, or at least two of those moon missions were already vetted. And they still got canceled. No, in this case it doesn’t help to be a scientist, maybe a shrink would be more like it.

  7. Rajini Rao says:

    Got it, thanks for your opinion Jim Carver .

  8. Celtic Nerd says:

    There’s also the blatant excess budget in the United states going towards military, meaning that science and food availability are left to fend for themselves.

    Finding water, as salty and acidic as it is, on mars means we have a possible chance to populate it. With that, we could grow massive amounts of food on its surface, and with that, we could also initiate a creation (or recreation, maybe?) Of an ecosystem that would create a true “second earth” right next door.

  9. The money spent on scientific research which is a very useful component is meager compared to useless things like war and religion. Anybody lamenting that scientific research is eating away resources needed for basic welfare should turn to these two expenditure.

  10. Rajini Rao says:

    Excellent points, thanks Celtic Nerd and Swamy GNV . The other point made by the quote in the post is that basic science has to be funded by collective public and tax payers because it cannot guarantee short term returns for share holders in industry. The for-profit companies enter into the picture only after a discovery shows some profit or applicability (which is justifiable).

  11. Rajini Rao says:

    Swamy GNV I agree! Also, by ensuring a steady source of funding, scientists can accomplish more than if funding levels go up and down with each political party or administration. 

  12. Ted Lemon says:

    The thing that bugs me about the “what about poor people” question is that the reason poor people are poor is that we have an economic system tuned to keep them poor, not that we are mis-spending on science out the arts. To propose that we should de-fund science research to help the poor is like saying we should burn books to cook food.

    If we really care about ending poverty we can do that right now without any reduction in research, education, infrastructure or the arts.

  13. Rajini Rao I think Robert McNees’ answer is disingenuous. He commented on the reader’s ability to discuss the issue on a platform that is possible because of XYZ research. Well and good. But the ability to discuss that issue or any issue on this platform wasn’t the question. The question was very different: using funds used in potentially useful research that may yield benefits in future to alleviate misery right now. His argument, which may be yours too, is easy to make if you are not the person facing said misery. For that person, surviving a day, a week or a month might be a stretch. From Balmer to the IC was about 100 years.

    First, the physicist was avoiding the direct impact of the question and instead talking like a politician, answering a question that was not asked and is irrelevant.

    Second, the answer is still meaningless, as the time period for that example far exceeds not only the life expectancy of the destitute but of most people.

    Third, and most important: having access to this technology/platform does nothing to actually solve the problem originally asked. Have computers removed poverty? Has space exploration removed poverty? NO. Will water on Mars remove poverty?

    Fourth, as a counterexample to the physicist’s “answer”, there are institutions (Swami Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna Mission, for example, I chose it for the time lines here) that came into being around the same time Balmer was studying spectral lines. They did not worry about spectral lines, or quantum mechanics or digital circuitry. They went to work directly, immediately on the problem at hand. It fed the poor and served the destitute. The Mission has mathematicians and physicists as monks in its ranks, so it is not very distant from science. But instead of giving a bullshit answer like the physicist above, it saw the problem infront and addressed it with the means available within the time limits allowed by nature. And it did it all while when computers didn’t exist and the Internet didn’t exist and letters were sent by ship from America to India.

    The question is what is the purpose of all this “science”? If it is to pursue knowledge, despite every difficulty or misery, sure. I can see that. In that it approaches philosophy. But if the answer is we need and spend money now to find solutions for society in future, then that is not true. If solving/serving the needs of today is the purpose, then that can be done without science, without research. It takes little to feed, house and clothe people. People who need help/service, need it now. Today’s research, especially the far out, exploratory research, will not serve today’s poor. You may ask, shall we abandon science? To that I will ask back, shall we abandon fellow humans?

  14. Rajini Rao says:

    To propose that we should de-fund science research to help the poor is like saying we should burn books to cook food. Ted Lemon I’m going to save this quote and put it to good use.

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    Praveen Kulkarni in this specific example, several of us did explain to “Worried” that we could tackle more than one problem at a time. He wasn’t entirely convinced, I think. Thanks for the link. Now I have somewhere to direct the #Whataboutery comments which are a favorite derailment tactic online.

  16. Rajini Rao says:

    Debashish Samaddar very simply, we would not be able to address issues of poverty and disease today, were it not for the curiosity driven research of a hundred years ago. History is full of excellent examples of this, and we can dig some out for this comment stream if you’re not convinced.

    The physicist responded with examples from his field, since he knows those best. I would have responded with examples from medicine and biology, of course. The person commenting on the NPR article questioned the cost of fascination in response to the scientist who was interviewed saying that space exploration was fascinating.

  17. Atta Aduojo says:

    Nice article. Keep it up

  18. Rajini Rao says:

    Here is a publication that explains how scientific innovation and technology helps fight poverty today. Everything from generating energy from biomass, to water purifiers, improving agricultural yields, fighting malaria and connecting people with mobile phones draws from curiosity driven research which may have seemed useless at the time. https://www.iop.org/publications/iop/2009/file_44076.pdf

  19. Pam Adger says:

    Funding is a big problem and it would be nice if there was another way to receive funding other than being the most skilled grant writer. People who are talented at research become glorified salespeople vying for the limited funds available. If you get funding…you have to hurry…because it has an expiration date. It’s a crazy system. 

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    My heart-felt agreement on that, Pam Adger. I get so tired of playing “salesman” instead of “scientist” these days. By the time we actually get funds to do something, the expertise has left or we’ve moved on to something else. I would give anything for a predictable, steady funding source instead of the 4-5 year windows that we have now.

  21. Rajini Rao I am actually not convinced. It is not the ability to discuss or address it with others, but the act of addressing it in the field, where it matters. A lot of science of hundred years ago is still irrelevant in that regard. You might cite examples that have helped, but for each successful example there were hundreds that were not. It’s the same survivorship bias that people have towards entrepreneurship and business.

    Also, there are unintended consequences. You speak of medicine and biology. Here’s one example: one-two hundred years ago the life expectancy of the average Indian was ~30 years. Population of the subcontinent  was around 200 million. They had their problems, there was disease, epidemics, no vaccines etc.. Medicine wiped those problems out (mostly). Now Indians live longer and don’t die as early. Result: an extremely over-populated country that can’t produce fast enough to match the explosion. Are Indians better off? Those that can afford it, yes. But ironically, there are more people, that are poor, sick and needy now (300-400 million) than the entire population 100-200 years back (200 million). Do you see the irony, cruel if you admit, in that?

  22. Rajini Rao says:

    Debashish Samaddar you are exactly right, many basic science ventures end up as nothing. But here is the beauty of the system: some of them, maybe even very few, have enormous societal, economic and medical impact that makes up for all the one’s that don’t. Furthermore, we cannot predict which research will be productive and which will merely fizzle out. So we have to invest in some wasteful research if we want to hit jackpot.

    As for your second point, Are Indians better off? I’ll respond with the same argument you used. Ask the mother who lost her child to polio or the farmer who had nothing to fight drought or pests. Would they prefer to die at age 35, lose most of their children to infant mortality, and have even less than they do today?

  23. Chad Haney says:

    In an io9 article, the author mentions that potassium bromide was discovered as a sedative while trying to find cures for masturbation.


    It’s a bit misleading because bromides (not to be confused with bro-mance) were known to have sedative and anti-aphrodisiac properties. The real story is that Sir Charles Locock demonstrated that potassium bromide was useful as an anti-epileptic therapy.

    Antiepileptic therapy with bromides—historical and actual importance, BJ Steinhoff, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 1992

    Reminds me of a previous conversation we had.

    Industry vs. academic/gov research


  24. I’m mostly in agreement with the OP, but I must admit to worrying about the scientists talking about life extension and “immortality”. This has become increasingly popular especially among the SV tech rich crowd, who actually have a lot of influence over the direction and funding of scientific research, and about public attitudes towards science more generally. .

    It seems pretty clear to me that raising human life expectancy primarily involves raising the lower bound. Ending poverty and war will do more to raise the average human life span than anything else. But most of the tech rich are interested in raising the upper bound, which basically means developing techniques that will only be available to the ultra-rich… whose wealth tends to come at the expense of global poverty and war. Extending the lives of the 1% will do virtually nothing to change the lives of the rest of us.

    I’m really not sure that research into human “immortality” can genuinely be covered by the need for “basic research”. Such goals fall within the scope of science, but they seem utterly selfish and politically blind.

  25. Chad Haney says:

    Daniel Estrada, do you have any evidence that the SV tech rich crowd influences funding for scientific research? Perhaps private foundation funding but I’m doubtful they have influence over NIH funding. Perhaps indirect influence of NSF funding as some misguided politicians think they need to get involved with NSF grant proposal reviews.


  26. Rajini Rao says:

    Daniel Estrada both Chad Haney and I work in biomedical research and we can unequivocally state that there is no legitimate academic research on immortality. Re. life extension, the focus is on understanding and preventing neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s. I’ve not read a peer reviewed paper or grant that actually has the goal of life extension. Modern biology is nowhere near creating immortality. There is aging research that has led to discovery of genes that impact life span, at least in nematodes, fly and mice. They are not that dramatic and the push is to understand the mechanism at a cellular and molecular level. I hope this is reassuring! I agree that we can best impact mortality by addressing basic human needs, treating disease and stopping war.

  27. Rajini Rao says:

    There is a petition to keep politics out of basic science. This bill, to strip peer review from funding decisions, would be disastrous if it passes. https://www.change.org/p/keep-politics-out-of-science-stop-the-passage-of-h-r-1806

  28. Rajini Rao That is definitely reassuring! Thank you =)

    Chad Haney I didn’t mean to imply NIH or NSF funding being used for immortality research; I was more commenting on the general influence Silicon Valley has over the direction of research. The Facebook psychology study from last year involved academics at major universities, for instance.

  29. Chad Haney says:

    There is also a lot of overlap in understanding aging and cancer at the molecular level. We know that DNA repair makes more mistakes as we age and DNA repair is related to cancer. In both areas of research, the goal is not immortality but how we can improve quality of life by understanding aging at the molecular level.

  30. It’s all connected, like us human beings.

    Thank You Rajini Rao 

  31. Jim Carver says:

    All very interesting, but I think most of you guys don’t get it. It’s not that the power brokers and managers-at-large don’t get this concept. They do, and they took a few science classes on their way to the control diner.

    What it is, is they just don’t care. It’s like managers at oil companies, they know about CO2 and other greenhouse gases just as much if not more than anybody.

    They just don’t care. Now if you can “outreach” that problem Rajini Rao , I’ll shake your hand.

  32. Adit Morey says:

    I think that our present knowledge of engineering should be used , in tandem with advances in robotics to send probes, or a small unmanned spacecraft to Mars. There we can build enclosed structures where some farming might be carried out and then it should be expanded, step by step to increase production of crops. But the success of this also depends on whether or not we actually find water on Mars.

  33. Rajini Rao says:

    Jim Carver this is about reaching the average non-scientist who may think twice before electing these power brokers to Congress or empowering them so they question the managers at large. Given the current state of the US electorate and their voting record, it’s a tough sell, I agree. The vast majority of my scientist colleagues do not bother to connect with the guy on the street because they think it is of no use, or they don’t know how, or are afraid to try. This is changing with the younger generation of scientists, who are more active on social media and have a chance to change public perception and policy. 

  34. USA cannot save the world. A support system here. Food water. Are you willing to pay more for food, water

  35. Rajini Rao says:

    Stance Neal we do not need to deny people food and water to support scientific research. Most countries spend a larger fraction of their GDP on research than the US. Is this what you are referring to, I’m not sure?

  36. Chad Haney says:

    Stance Neal, if I understand your comment, you could make a better argument for military spending.

  37. Steve S says:

    Rajini Rao Obviously, we don’t have to choose between providing basic needs and doing basic research. At most, we can build fewer stealth bombers and nuclear missiles.

    Research is hugely important, and it doesn’t even have to be basic research to have massive benefits. What matters is that it’s research into real problems and that the results are available for use by others. A classic example of this is how our space program advanced the field of computing.


  38. Rajini Rao says:

    Steve S that’s a great article, thanks. An excellent response to those who don’t see value in space exploration for itself. 

  39. Steve S says:

    Rajini Rao My second idea was DARPA and TCP/IP. That was military research with a huge payoff.

  40. Rajini Rao says:

    My favorite example (in molecular biology) is of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) which is used in forensic science, paternity testing, prenatal/cancer/genetic diagnostics, DNA cloning and much more. It came from studying the strange bacteria that grow in hot springs and deep sea vents (thermophiles). 

  41. Chad Haney says:

    I’m disappointed my bro-mance comment isn’t getting more love. 😉

  42. Steve S says:

    Jim Carver I should probably mention that I’m acquainted with vint cerf, so you’re not going to be able to tell any tall tales about the origins of the Internet.

  43. Rajini Rao says:

    Chad Haney you know that I laughed at that one! I was side tracked by that awful bill on NSF funding. 

  44. Rajini Rao says:

    Actually, that deserves a separate post just to showcase the pun 🙂

  45. Steve S says:

    Chad Haney What about Calico?

  46. Mary T says:

    We seem to have plenty of money to fund the military-industrial complex. Great post, Rajini Rao. Science is essential to humanity.

  47. Rajini Rao says:

    Steve S you know, I thought of Google’s Calico project (or is it an institute) when the question of longevity research came up. Not surprising that it is underwritten by a tech giant! I remember being amused that they recruited Cynthia Kenyon, who is a respected geneticist, but her longevity research is on….worms! Jokes aside, aging research is coming along but there is nothing groundbreaking that can be applied to humans in the near future. It’s the same stuff that has been worked on for a decade or more: caloric restriction, mTOR pathway, IGF-1.

  48. Rajini Rao says:

    Mary T thanks, there has been a good discussion here, from #whataboutery  to bromides.

  49. Steve S says:

    Rajini Rao Calico is how Larry and Sergey are planning to live forever.

    “Calico is a research and development company whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan.”

    Insert obvious joke about lowering portion sizes in Google cafeterias to impose caloric restrictions.

  50. Rajini Rao says:

    Steve S as long as they fund some life science research, I’m not going to laugh at them! 

  51. Steve S says:

    Rajini Rao You just want to live forever!

    Speaking of which, do you remember a few years back when I wrote about irradiating my cat with iodine to destroy his thyroid gland? Somehow, he’s still alive today.

  52. Steve S says:

    Jim Carver I destroyed his thyroid glands to save his life. He had hyperthyroidism, which would have been fatal given his hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

  53. Chad Haney says:

    Steve S​, I’m not following your question. Calico?

  54. Steve S says:

    Chad Haney I’m offering it as an example of private research into longevity.

  55. Rajini Rao says:

    Chad Haney it’s Google (or Alphabet’s) venture into Lifescience research. Steve S I am reminded of a formal dinner we had with a donor who had just paid for a new biomedical research building. It was fine that this wealthy man was not a scientist, but things got funny when he began talking about alien research! Great news about your cat! Of course, he has 8 lives left, I presume. 

  56. Steve S says:

    Rajini Rao Donors are weird. Mostly, you want them to hand over the money and leave.

    He went through all of his 9 lives years ago, but his brother lent him 8 more to keep him going. Unfortunately, this meant that, when his brother’s kidney started failing, he died within the year despite aggressive treatment.

  57. If basic research is so beneficial for everyone, why aren’t you requesting voluntary donations or private investment instead of advocating for forcing taxpayers to fund it? There are many smart people in the world, some many affluent, they should be easy to persuade. And even the regular people spend quite a lot in unnecessary things and often even harmful such as restaurants, drinks, tobacco, donuts, weddings, funerals, gambling, lottery, expensive cars, swimming pools, air conditioning, PV panels, etc. So why wouldn’t they be willing to spend part of that surplus into more useful endeavours such as basic research? I would give money to basic anti-ageing research, in fact I already donated to the SENS Foundation. Google is also funding long-term research in a number of fields, including ageing research. A further well-known example is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

    Another interesting question is why you expect that what people may not willing to do voluntarily (e.g., funding basic research), will be willing to force everyone, including themselves, to do through taxes. What’s the logic in that?

    The only rational explanation is that you can persuade them that they will spend less through the latter method, which is kind of naive, considering how poorly that government manages the taxpayer money, perhaps because the government bureaucrats don’t have the necessary incentives. In contrast, a funding system based on voluntary donations and investments would have much greater incentive to render results (either economically profitable or not) in order to attract further voluntary donations and investment.

    The same phenomenon is seen with charities and humanitarian organisations. The ones that get more bang for the buck are the organisations funded through voluntary donations, whereas the humanitarian projects funded with taxpayer money and managed by governmental institutions are much less efficient in the use of their budget.

    “Almost every major technological advance of the 20th and 21st centuries originated with basic research that presented no obvious or immediate economic benefit. That means no profit motive, and hence no reason for the private sector to adequately fund it.”

    — This is in my view a fallacious argument. First, the private sector has funded basic research, or perhaps private businesses don’t pay corporate tax, presently 35% in the US? A different story is whether those businesses would be willing to fund such amount of capital. Perhaps those businesses would be willing to invest in basic research if they didn’t have to pay such amount of taxes and could use their investment to improve their prestige and the brand perception of their enterprise.

    Second, much of the basic research of the previous century were made in private institutions. For instance, Alexander Fleming was working in a private hospital when he re-discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin G and isolated it. Likewise, William Shockley was working for Bell Labs, a private institution, at the time that he and his colleagues developed the transistor.

    Likewise a number of other discoveries and technologies developed there, the wave nature of matter, the cosmic microwave background radiation, the CCD, the fluorescence microscopy, the fractional quantum Hall effect, methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light, the understanding of the electronic structure of glass and magnetic materials, the quantum cascade laser, C language and the UNIX OS, the first practical photovoltaic cell, etc.

  58. Steve S says:

    Zephyr López Cervilla There are investments that are worth it but only to the government.

  59. Tau-Mu Yi says:

    Yes there really is a random aspect to research, especially basic research. It is extremely difficult to predict the most impactful research ahead of time, and so we hedge our bets by spreading the money around (i.e. placing lots of bets) using the best judgment of the scientific community.

    As you say, nearly all of the great technological advancements of the modern era originated as “impractical” basic research.

    There are big financial incentives for applied (“practical”) research to develop new ways of water purification or better pest-resistant crops. They also happen to be extremely difficult problems and sometimes (often) the optimal solution comes from left-field from some completely unrelated “basic” research.

  60. Rajini Rao says:

    Zephyr López Cervilla a standard grant for biomedical research is about 250K/year for 5 years (it covers salaries, equipment, supplies). You can’t raise that kind of money from Kickstarter campaigns. Foundations are good sources, but they also have limited funds that they raise by grass root efforts from patient advocates like marathons, etc. They also have limits on what they fund (EDIT: a good example is the Gates foundation that you cite. They only fund research on public health i.e., malaria but not cancer as an example). Taxpayer funding makes sense because basic research is for the benefit of society as a whole. For profit companies only become involved at a later stage in the discovery process. A good example is the initial discovery of a gene target and preclinical studies in an academic lab, followed by drug design and testing by pharma. Pharma won’t fund the initial discoveries because they are too risky. 

    BTW, when you give money directly to research from an online campaign, how do you know that the research is scientifically sound? It’s like people throwing money at that wunderkind who wants to clean up ocean gyres with some naive ideas. 

  61. Rajini Rao says:

    P.S. re. private funding of research: in the old days, science was done by wealthy individuals who spent their own money on their research. Also, modern research is much more expensive and sophisticated requiring, for example, millions of dollars worth of microscopes and imaging facilities. Private universities and research institution are also funded by federal dollars in the US. It’s similar in Europe and elsewhere.   

  62. Amber Peall says:

    Memory foam. That’s ny favourite thing – I seem to recall that NASA expanded on the original idea, and now I have the most amazing bed. 🙂

  63. Steve S, what are your arguments to support that policy makers are more willing to fund basic research than private citizens or non-governmental institutions?

    The mentioned argument about the lack of short-term economic profitability can be countered and even rebutted by the numerous examples of non-profit organisations that fund projects with no return of investment, the existence of patrons of science, arts and humanitarian causes, the existence of academic institutions that have funded some of their basic research with their own budget or from donations, and even of corporations that have invested in long-term research.

    I mentioned a few before, AT&T, Google/Alphabet, the Nobel Foundation, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Rockefeller Foundation and Rockefeller University, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, Vanderbilt University, Drexel University, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, etc.

  64. Rajini Rao says:

    Zephyr López Cervilla  you’ve just named a bunch of private organizations that fund their research through federal grants. I’m a professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School and we are all supported by “soft money” i.e., we have to bring in funds to pay for our own salary and research. Same applies to CMU, Cornell, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller etc. Howard Hughes is a philanthropic organization but it is very very elite and funds only very few scientists. I don’t think Nobel foundation funds research- they gave out prizes. I mentioned earlier that Gates foundation has very narrow interests- it supports health research for third world countries, primarily (so infectious/tropical diseases, population studies). 

  65. Rajini Rao says:

    Tau-Mu Yi well said. If we knew which research would be “successful” we would all be doing it! But we’re not that smart and the problems we try to solve are very hard. 

  66. Chad Haney says:

    Rajini Rao​, we have plaques all of the lab to acknowledge private donors. We couldn’t get all of our equipment with grants. We have over $6 million in equipment/instrumentation, so I totally agree. Modern research is expensive.

  67. Rajini Rao says:

    Your work is particularly dependent on high end imaging equipment, Chad Haney . Core grants, center grants, institutional support, donors….

  68. Steve S says:

    Zephyr López Cervilla Like I said, it comes down to economics. Funding requires a good deal of money, but research is hit or miss and rife with externalities.

    Markets are very bad at capturing these externalities, while the government is in an ideal position to do so. That’s why the government should provide the bulk of the funding, particular for basic research.

  69. Rajini Rao: ”You can’t raise that kind of money from Kickstarter campaigns.”

    — The fact that it doesn’t happen today (what is arguable) isn’t evidence that it couldn’t happen in the future, especially if the favourable conditions for it to happen are established. The surplus wealth does exist, otherwise there would be no funds for basic biomedical research.

    Rajini Rao: ”They only fund research on public health  i.e., malaria but not cancer as an example”

    — A greater specialisation also offers greater flexibility to the donors on how to allocate their funds. There are a number of other foundations that invest in cancer research or heart disease. In contrast, the taxpayer has no capacity to decide how to allocate the funds for research. On the other hand, if each individual keeps such decision, as a whole, the investment for research can be distributed preferentially to those areas of higher interest in the population. Cancer research would probably be one of those preferential areas of research since it afflicts so many.

    Rajini Rao: ”Taxpayer funding makes sense because basic research is for the benefit of society as a whole.”

    — Each field or area of study of basic research isn’t necessarily benefiting everyone, and those who benefit may have other priorities or preferences on how to allocate those funds. Even assuming that any project of basic research could benefit everyone, you don’t count with the mechanism to determine the optimal and most satisfactory way to allocate the funds for basic research. Who is in better position to decide, on base of which criterion are taken those decisions?

    Rajini Rao: “For profit companies only become involved at a later stage in the discovery process.”

    — I mentioned before a few examples of the contrary (e.g., Bell Labs, PARC, Calico, Google X). A few more examples:

    «Statistics compiled by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) suggest a jump in industrial funding of basic research beginning in 2006 (see ‘Corporate masters’). In a climate of stagnant federal and university funding, the increase stands out. Even as some companies have trimmed their research units, others seem to have bolstered them, says Josh Lerner, an economist at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. “For every Pfizer cutting basic research, there has been a Google picking up the slack,” he says. The trend, if it solidifies, would signal a reversal from the trajectory of the past several decades, which saw industry support for basic research languish. Many cite the dismantling, from 1996 onwards, of Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey — the iconic industrial research centre that invented the laser, the transistor and radio astronomy — as indicative of this larger malaise.

    But tech giants such as Microsoft seem to be leading a corporate-research revival. Spread across the globe, the company’s research arm comprises roughly 1,100 scientists in fields as varied as ecology, bioinformatics and the social sciences — as well as the computer scientists and mathematicians one might expect. Researchers there operate with few restrictions on inquiry or publication, although they are expected to produce relevant, insightful work — whether for product development or  to advance the understanding of nature.

    Companies in California’s Silicon Valley are following suit. Google, based in Mountain View, brings dozens of outside scientists to its offices for as many as 18 months at a time and spends more than US$30 million annually on grants and fellowships. On 17 April, Twitter, in San Francisco, announced the winners of a programme to let scientists answer research questions using Twitter data. And in December, Facebook, in Menlo Park, tapped Yann LeCun, a computer scientist at New York University, to lead its new artificial-intelligence research group. “There was of a bit of a period until recently where there were very few places in industry where you could do real research,” says LeCun.» 

    — Drake N. Basic science finds corporate refuge. Nature (2014) vol. 509 (7498) pp. 18-9



    Rajini Rao: “A good example is the initial discovery of a gene target and preclinical studies in an academic lab, followed by drug design and testing by pharma. Pharma won’t fund the initial discoveries because they are too risky.”

    — Actually, the largest investments in the development of new drugs come from clinical trials, which can also be very risky (see below). I suspect that the primary reason for which pharmaceutical companies don’t invest that much in basic research is because there are already other institutions willing to do that job for them.

    The pharmaceutical and biomedical industry is one of the most intervened sectors by governments everywhere: public grants, subsidies, co-funding of research and development of new drugs and treatments, incentives/privileges, barriers to new competitors, public-private partnerships, large government contracts, which, in sum, may be impacting the productivity of such industry and its capacity for innovation.

    Rajini Rao: “when you give money directly to research from an online campaign, how do you know that the research is scientifically sound? It’s like people throwing money at that wunderkind who wants to clean up ocean gyres with some naive ideas.”

    — Through the same mechanisms that donors use to determine whether charity organisations will spend their funds wisely and effectively. For instance, there are independent non-profit charity evaluators (the so called watchdogs) that provide the kind of information that you may require. E.g., Charity Navigator, American Institute of Philanthropy/CharityWatch, GuideStar, GiveWell, etc.



    Ultimately, the donors and investors have more control over the allocation of their funding than taxpayers, since the likely recipients of those funds will need to offer favourable results, as they compete with other projects in order to attract further funding, whereas the taxpayer has no other alternatives, not even with their vote, since rarely the vote is decided based on one single issue (let alone, on the issue of  investment on basic research). Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that the political programs be implemented.

    The decision of how to allocate the funding for research quite often is taken according to quite questionable criteria and mechanisms:

    «We feel that by allowing grant holders to serve as grant reviewers, a conflict of interest becomes inescapable.»

    «More alternative funding modes should be tested in pilot schemes and in experimental controlled studies of optimizing funding processes. For example, the American Cancer Society uses impartial laymen known as stakeholders in their grant reviews to limit bias, which may reduce the influence of strongly opinionated group members[8] (see go.nature.com/iosnre). Using non-experts or experts from different scientific fields in the study sections could also help to reduce the impact of a vocal minority.[4, 9]»

    — Nicholson JM and Ioannidis, JPA. Research grants: Conform and be funded. Nature (2012) vol. 492 (7427) pp. 34-36


    Excerpt: plus.google.com/+ZephyrLópezCervilla/posts/DFFbzMsFmr1 

    URL graphics (open access):


    Supplementary Information (open access):


    How Scientists are Selected for Study Section Service. Center for Scientific Review (NIH)


    Research Programs and Funding. Funding Opportunities. Peer Review Committees. American Cancer Society.


    In contrast, if every individual is free to decide where to allocate their funds, even if some may not make the most sound decisions, over time the system will tend to be self-correcting, as those disappointed by the results of their donations decide to  withdraw their support and make public their decision.

    Rajini Rao: in the old days, science was done by wealthy individuals who spent their own money on their research. Also, modern research is much more expensive and sophisticated requiring, for example, millions of dollars worth of microscopes and imaging facilities.

    — Wealthy individuals also funded basic research. The number of science foundations, institutions, research hospitals and universities that were founded by wealthy individuals is evidence of it.

    While modern research is much more expensive than it used to be decades or centuries ago, nowadays the number of wealthy individuals is much larger than in the past, and many of them much wealthier (in absolute terms) than the wealthiest individuals of the past. On the other hand, there’s no reason for which basic research could be only financially sustained by the most affluent. Even if the remaining population has much less income and less wealth, they are on the other hand much more numerous.

    Rajini Rao: ”Private universities and research institution are also funded by federal dollars in the US. It’s similar in Europe and elsewhere.”

    — It’s worth to point out that generally governments don’t spend their own wealth, instead they simply take some wealth from others and give it to someone else (in the form of funds to hire workers and acquire resources). So if governments can nowadays invest in basic research is because the resources are already there available to be used. There was someone who produced them, and individual taxpayers (not the governments) handed out part of the wealth that they had created in order to fund that research.

    Regardless of whether those funds come from taxes, from non-profit organisations, from voluntary donations of wealthy patrons or average people, or from private companies, the funding, the human and material resources will still be there available to be used for that purpose.

    In fact, I argue that those same resources would be more efficiently spent if at least some control of the spending were kept in the hands of those who originally created that wealth since, as Milton Friedman said, “Nobody spends somebody else’s money as wisely as he spends his own” [or “as carefully”]. Granted, there are some exceptions, but on average, as a whole, people are more careful with the spending of what it took them time and effort to obtain, or they have in limited supply.

    Example of poor management of the scarce resources allocated to (basic) research:

    «”The International Space Station is an orbital turkey,” said Steven Weinberg, a particle physicist at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics. “No important science has come out of it. I could almost say no science has come out of it. And I would go beyond that and say that the whole manned spaceflight program, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value.”»

    «”Human beings don’t serve any useful function in space,” Weinberg told SPACE.com. “They radiate heat, they’re very expensive to keep alive and unlike robotic missions, they have a natural desire to come back, so that anything involving human beings is enormously expensive.”»

    «”All the others have been put on the back burner,” Weinberg said. “This is at the same time that NASA’s budget is increasing, with the increase being driven by what I see on the part of the president and the administrators of NASA as an infantile fixation on putting people into space, which has little or no scientific value.”»

    — Ker Than. Nobel Laureate Disses NASA’s Manned Spaceflight. Space.com. September 18, 2007


    «Sam Dinkin, The Space Review (TSR): You called the International Space Station (ISS) an “orbital turkey” and got the media’s attention. Do you think it’s a turkey shoot to pick on the ISS because they didn’t really even schedule any science for the first couple of decades of the project?

    Professor Steven Weinberg: Yes, I think the ISS is just one example of NASA’s ridiculous overemphasis on manned spaceflight. It may originally have been intended to serve as a platform for going on to the Moon and Mars, but then the orbit was changed to make it accessible to Russian rockets. As a result it doesn’t even have that. There have been continual efforts to justify it in terms of science done on the ISS. It’s hard for any one scientist to judge work across a range of fields. I can say that in my own field, which is fundamental physics and astronomy, especially cosmology, it has produced nothing. I would have heard.»

    — Sam Dinkin. An interview with Steven Weinberg. The Space Review. January 14, 2008


    «Space-based astronomy has a special problem in the US. NASA, the government agency responsible for this work, has always devoted more of its resources to manned space flight, which contributes little to science. All of the space-based observatories that have contributed so much to astronomy in recent years have been unmanned. The International Space Station was sold in part as a scientific laboratory, but nothing of scientific importance has come from it. Last year a cosmic ray observatory was carried up to the Space Station (after NASA had tried to remove it from the schedule for shuttle flights), and for the first time significant science may be done on the Space Station, but astronauts will have no part in its operation, and it could have been developed more cheaply as an unmanned satellite.»

    — Steven Weinberg. The Crisis of Big Science. The New York Review of Books. May 10, 2012


    I suspect that the allocation of resources to the manned spaceflight program has no scientific purpose but a political one (on that regard, the spent resources may not have been wasted). Further reason to keep the scarce resources available for basic research away from the whim of policy makers.

    Further reading:

    • Davis P. Most NIH-Sponsored Trials Slow to Publish, Many Aren’t Published, Most Fail to Report Data, Studies Show. The Scholarly Kitchen. Feb 21, 2012.


    • Denee TR et al. Measuring the value of public-private partnerships in the pharmaceutical sciences. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery (2012) vol. 11 (5) pp. 419


    • Scannell JW et al. Diagnosing the decline in pharmaceutical R&D efficiency. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery (2012) vol. 11 (3) pp. 191-200


    • Herper M. The Cost Of Creating A New Drug Now $5 Billion, Pushing Big Pharma To Change. Forbes, August 11, 2013.


    Echoed here:

    • Steve Blank. Reinventing Life Science Startups.

    Therapeutics and Diagnostics. August 19, 2013.


    Medical Devices and Digital Health. August 20, 2013.


    Evidence-based Entrepreneurship. August 21, 2013.


    URL G+ post with further references and excerpts:


    • David H Freedman. Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. The Atlantic. November, 2010.


    • Bob Yirka. Research duo say that far too many preclinical cancer study results are just plain wrong. Medicalxpress.com. March 29, 2012


    • Sharon Begley. In cancer science, many “discoveries” don’t hold up. Reuters. March 27, 2012.


    • Prinz F, Schlange T and Asadullah K. Believe it or not: how much can we rely on published data on potential drug targets? Nature Rev. Drug Discov. 10, 712 (2011).


    • Ellis LM and Begley CG. Drug development: Raise standards for preclinical cancer research. Nature 483, 531–533 (29 March 2012).


    URL G+ post with further references and excerpts:




  70. Chad Haney says:

    I’m glad I blocked Zephyr so I don’t have to read his diatribes anymore.

  71. Rajini Rao says:

    Zephyr López Cervilla I think the TL;DR version of your comment is that scientists should raise money directly from the public or from for-profit companies.

    The short answer is yes, we should. 

    For others reading this thread, however, it’s important to understand that science funding is complex and best done through specialized agencies like the National Inst. of Health and the National Science Foundation (and equivalent agencies in other countries).

    There is a lot that goes into a research grant proposal that you have probably never thought about, which is missing in online Kickstarter-type petitions.  For starters, they don’t have safeguards in place for verifying ethics and certification (recombinant DNA, viruses, animals, human subjects, isotopes, etc.). They do not assess scientific feasibility and rigor of the project, ensure facilities are in place, etc. They have no way of holding the researcher accountable for the funds spent. The online fundraisers are ripe for scammers and fraud and it will take only a few scams to turn off the public. Furthermore, suggesting that research be funded from small individual donations underestimates the size of the scientific enterprise. Research expenses from my university alone were 2 billion dollars this past year. That’s twice as much as President Obama raised in his highly successful election campaign. Total expenditure on research is >500 billion dollars in the US. We’d me spending even more of our time fundraising if we had to work directly with the public. Not to mention coming up with gifts and goodies for them all. So yes, we should and could do more fundraising from the public, but it’s not going to be the main revenue, or even the more efficient route, for funding research. 

  72. Kee Hinckley says:

    Chad Haney I think “treatise” or “manifesto” might be more appropriate to the size.

  73. Chad Haney says:

    Kee Hinckley, last time I checked, he brags about who blocks him on his ‘about’ page. That’s a real feather to put in one’s cap.

  74. Steve S says:

    Chad Haney I wrote him off the moment he ignored my post and instead dropped a wall of text on top of overly-patient Rao.

  75. Bill Collins says:

    One suspects that science could indeed save the planet. Politicians, bureaucrats and business people would have to get the hell out of the way. And still help out. Heh.

    Speaking to the original point, I do find it hard to do my job and yet see people with needs on the street. And I walk by them many days. Without helping. Because I know I’m doing what I can and yet my resources are limited. If only we could give everyone a decent place to be and advance our understanding of the universe.

  76. Steve S says:

    Bill Collins We can. But it would mean fewer billionaires.

  77. Bill Collins says:

    That does not seem like a problem from where I sit.

  78. Short sighted moronish leaders will kill humanity!

  79. Joe M. Jones says:

    Let the money flow for research only GOD knows the real answer.

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