The motivation(s) for funding science

The motivations for applied research and development activities are usually explicit; the goal is to solve a particular problem or to make practical a particular product or service. Much of this work is done (and funded) by businesses with a clear duty to their owners to maximize profits. The motivations for basic research are much less clear, since the knowledge that is intended to be generated is not necessarily practical, and the outcomes are much less certain, and less certain to benefit the sponsor. Why do governments and other organizations decide to fund basic research? How do funders decide which basic research projects to pay for?

Motivations for public funding

Since the federal budget for academic science is the largest single source of basic research support, it is important to look at the public attitudes toward science funding, and the pressures on governmental decision-makers.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) does periodic surveys on public attitudes regarding science and technology. In 2006, 87% of Americans expressed support for government funding of basic research, up from levels around 80% in past surveys dating back to 1979. The percentage of Americans who said that the government spends too little on scientific research grew from 34% to 41% between 2002 and 2006. Other kinds of federal spending (e.g. on the military or education), however, generate even stronger public support.

There is a fair amount of public discontent with science generally. As reported in the NSF document, majorityof Americans believe that "scientific research these days doesn’t pay enough attention to the moral values of society," Public attitudes toward biology in particular are colored by a deep distrust by the American public in evolution, and to a lesser degree, doubts about climate change.

Paying attention to the kind of science being funded can make a difference. Biomedical research, including basic research in areas related to biomedicine, is much more strongly supported by the public than scientific research generally. Since everyone is susceptable to injury and disease, research with the potential to positively effect human health is widely supported. In a 2005 survey about concerns regarding medical and health research, 20% of respondents said they had no concerns, 13% said they didn’t know, 9% had concerns about research being profit-driven, 9% said finding cures for diseases was a concern, 8% were concerned about wasting money, 6% said research is needed, 5% were concerned that there is not enough funding for research, and another 4% said research takes too long. Only 4% mentioned stem cells and cloning, and 1% said they were concerned about animal testing and abuse.

Challenges to support of biological research occasionally make political headlines, such as the McCain presidential campaign's repeated reference to earmarks for studying the Grizzly Bear genome, or Senator Grassley's investigations of financial payoffs to top scientists (or see this recent article on one of his specific targets).

Setting priorities

Although there is public support for basic research, and strong support for biomedical research, there is limited funding available, so the questions of what research should have priority is critical. Part of the federal process for setting priorities is done at the agency level, e.g. the Department of Energy has a much larger budget than the Environmental Protection Agency, and hence does more research in its mission area. Agencies tend to want to fund work only in their mission or purvue; e.g. NSF and DoE try to avoid funding biomedical research.

Congressional budgeting sets general priorities. Within biomedical research, the allocation of resources among the more than 20 different institutes within NIH sets priorites among diseases and affected populations. There can be competition among different interest groups, and there have been interesting policy questions raised about the effectiveness of the process, particularly for infrastructure and interdisciplinary research topics.

Within each entity with its own Congressional budget, a series of decisions have to be made about which proposals or projects to fund. The major basic science funding agencies each have somewhat different approaches.

The National Institutes of Health is legally committed to peer review, and while the director of each institute has some discretition (say, to fund two inexpensive programs that reviewed almost as well as one expensive one), the scientific merit of a proposal (as determined by peer review) is largely determinative. NIH staff exercise their descrition over what broad areas should be funded by issuing requests for applications (RFAs) and program announcements (PAs) that specify areas of interest and review criteria. Towards the end of the Clinton administration, there were Congressional hearings and publications on how NIH sets its internal research priorities. One of the results was the creation of a Council of Public Representatives made up of members of the public who advise the NIH Director on issues related to public participation in NIH activities, outreach efforts, and other matters of public interest. Since 2000, the approach has been to create an Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives which centralized a significant portion of the priority-setting process.

Within the National Science Foundation, while peer review is still quite important, program staff have somewhat more descretion than at NIH (see, e.g. chapter III-E of the NSF policy guide. Within NSF, division directors make funding decisions, and, unlike institute directors at NIH, they will often work together to jointly fund proposals. Peer review plays a role in the decision-making process, but NSF program officers also consider a wide range of other criteria. The NSF also published a report at the end of the Clinton administration that recommended substantial changes in the process for setting scientific research priorities,

Department of Energy policy about merit review and the award selection process give still more discretion to staff: "Selection of applications for award will be done by the authorized Office of Science selecting official and will be based upon merit review, the importance and relevance of the proposed project to the Office of Science missions, and funding availability. Cost reasonableness and realism will also be considered to the extent appropriate." Decision authority is dispersed over a greater number of project officers.

Finally, the military science agencies (such as DARPA, AFOSR, ONR, etc.) tend to invest complete authority over research funding decisions in particular program officers. Program officers have their own budgets, but also have to report on progress in areas of military significance to their superiors. Peer review sometimes plays a role in these funding decisions, but is not required. "While the selection of program proposals [like NIH's] often places heavy emphasis on previous publication histories and peer review, DARPA's selection of projects regards these less heavily. DARPA tries to distinguish itself as an agency that is based almost entirely on good ideas with clear, exceptionally beneficial consequences. It sponsors projects, not programs."

There has been controversy about which approach is better, or if they are complementary. Other approaches, such as the awarding of prizes that support future research based on past results (e.g. the MacArthur fellowship, HHMI investigators or even NIH's Pioneer Award) currently support only small amounts of research.

Does basic research target the areas where it would do the most good?

There have been longstanding questions about this entire process. Does the basic research that is actually done best support the interests of taxpayers, the American general public, the world? Are there ways of setting budgets and priorities that might work better? Scientists often say that they should be given freedom to choose themselves (e.g. physicists in the UK in 2003). In pursuit of the idea that scientists should set their own research priorities, the Federated Societies for Experimental Biology publish an annual set of recommendations for biomedical and related life sciences research. Congress almost never agrees with those recommendations, but sometimes takes them into account.

Representing taxpayers interests, the US Goverment has developed an assessment mechanism for all government programs. The basic science programs are all rated outstanding, although with areas listed for improvement (see, e.g. NSF's assessment, NIH's and the assessment of military basic research).

Others have suggested that the dominant political agenda ends up setting scientific priorities, which might inappropriately decrease the attention paid to certain topics, for example to sustainable development, or alter the way the research is structured, for example in climate change work.

There probably isn't a single answer to these questions, but most agree that it seems possible to improve the existing system.

To bring these very high-level issues to a more practical level, we will have a debate in class regarding potential conflicts of interest in research brought about by industry sponsorship -- a debate that is quite relevant to our campus. And if you don't think it's relevant to you, try reading this personal narrative of how a doctor slides gradually into being a drug rep.






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