My mom is a very accomplished scientist. She has authored something like 400 published peer reviewed papers, tons of book chapters, edited a book series and been a senior editor at one of the top journals in her field for decades. She was an independent investigator in academia for 16 years, then went into industry and was a vice president at a major pharmaceutical company. Now she has a senior role at the National Cancer Institute. Her view on academic research is interesting. Her feeling is that while academic scientists “try their best” for the most part they don’t have the skills or tools to do real cutting-edge science. Real rigorous science is done in industry, but not much in academia.
The always amazing Scott Alexander recently posted a literature review on adult human neurogenesis. After showing how the newest research shows that the whole field has been built on a spurious base he writes:
“the reason I feel compelled to dabble in this subject anyway is that I don’t feel like anyone else is conveying the level of absolute terror we should be feeling right now. As far as I can tell, this is the most troubling outbreak of the replication crisis so far. And it didn’t happen in a field like social psychology which everyone already knows is kind of iffy. It happened in neuroscience, with dramatic knock-on effects on medicine, psychology, and psychiatry.
I feel like every couple of months we get a result that could best be summed up as “no matter how bad you thought things were, they’re actually worse”. And then things turn out to be even worse than that. “
My response to my mom’s judgement on the quality of academic science is that the government should stop giving these people so much money to waste. My mother’s response has always been that that would be disastrous because so many scientists would be out of work. The point of scientific grants are not to produce knowledge that will benefit the people who pay for it. Its has become just a jobs program for people who like playing scientist. It also allows them to train the next generation of “scientists” to spend their lives writing grant proposals to do invalid research and write papers that no one will read.
Grants to academic scientists are somewhere around $40 Billion/year, and have been substantial since the 1960s. All together the federal government has spent $Trillions on academic research with no accounting on the value allegedly produced.
In Tyler Cowen’s seminal book “The Great Stagnation” he points to some time around 1973 as when economic growth really slowed down. A lot of things happened in the early 70s. The Bretton Woods system fell apart. China hit its nadir and started to rebound. OPEC imposed their embargo that created a massive gasoline shortage. I think all these things contributed to why the early 70s was a turning point (in the wrong direction) for the US. But another thing that happened was that Nixon declared his War on Cancer. That was what drove my mom to pick cancer as her field. There was suddenly a lot more money to do academic science. The 60s and 70s was when the government really started to put big money into academic research. Is it just a coincidence that the rate of innovation started to crater at the same time?
Since the 1960s we have created this path that smart people can take to do “research that interests them” rather than research that produces enough results to be worth paying for by the private market. Before then, non-economic research was limited to people who had a day job or independent means. There is a myth that technology comes from theory but very often theory comes from observing technology that has been derived from incremental tinkering. As Taleb wrote in Antifragile:
“Scranton showed that we have been building and using jet engines in a completely trial-and-error experimental manner, without anyone truly understanding the theory. Builders needed the original engineers who knew how to twist things to make the engines work. Theory came later, in a lame way, to satisfy the intellectual bean counter.”
By taking a lot of the smartest people out of the role of tinkering technological development, and putting them into the role of developing “fundamental knowledge” without good incentives to get stuff right, maybe we have slowed the whole process way down. Everyone, pretty much across the whole political spectrum, thinks more money for research creates more progress and faster growth. The budget that Trump signed a few weeks ago included a 10% increase in funding for NIH and republicans and democrats both counted that as a win. What if they are all just wrong? What if the sclerotic, bureaucratic and masturbatory (the endless circle jerk of “peer review”) system of academic research is just sucking brain power out of the dynamic and innovative parts of our society? What if we could just shut the whole thing down and get an immediate boost in the rate of scientific advancement? Isn’t that a chance worth taking?
P.S. The one area situation where government money can speed up research is if the capital necessary for tinkering is just beyond the capabilities of the private sector. I think fusion is an example where $10s of billions must be spent just to start trying stuff out. I think that is an appropriate place for publicly funded scientific research as I have written about here.