SCIENCE FUNDING: SHOW ME THE MONEY
Harvard Profs Ambivalent Toward Grant Reform
Stanford Chemistry Professor Richard N. Zare '61, who chairs the National Science Foundation's (NSF) overseeing body, the National Science Board (NSB), says he wants to change the undirected and inefficient way government research money is distributed.
"We have not been able to devise a good way to allocate resources across different scientific and engineering disciplines," Zare says. "What we see is a lack of coordination [among funding agencies]."
The NSB analyzed such problems in-depth in a December paper titled "Government Funding of Scientific Research," although it stopped short of coming up with solutions.
However, professors at Harvard express skepticism about changes to the current funding system.
"I think that here is a sufficient level of directedness and that anything additional could [stifle] fundamental research," says Professor of Chemistry Eric N. Jacobsen.
Zare says one problem of science research is that various agencies often allocate money for the same project.
Zare points to the case of neutron experiments. Neutron sources are useful to biological and biochemical scientists, who are largely funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), but the Department of Energy (DOE) builds the neutron sources and the NSF funds the use of the facilities.
"This is a problem that involves three agencies," Zare says. "It's possible for each one to think they've made good plans, but [then] find out that it's not possible to use the facility well. That's very sad."
The NSB paper suggests no specific action to take but merely assesses the danger of research duplication and "gaps" in the nation's overall research program.
It concludes that federal agencies and other "stake holders" in science funding should coordinate their agendas to ensure that money for science is used effectively. Harvard Reactions
Harvard Professors agree that the complex system for the various funding agencies can be difficult to navigate, and that funding decisions are often irrational.
"In the research we do, part of the people are funded by NSF and part by [the DOE]," says Professor of Physics Melissa Franklin. "All the database are different. It seems kind of bizarre."
Franklin says funding cuts can affect scientists differently depending on which agency they are affiliated with.
"Particle physics started taking cuts a few years ago whereas DOE didn't," she says. "It's not really fair."
Despite the attempts of the federal government through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office for Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to help agencies coordinate their budgets and to ensure that they fund projects within their jurisdiction, Zare says a lack of communication still plagues the federal research funding system.
"You go to agency A and say 'We're from the NSB, we're here to help,' and they say there really is a problem and they point at agency B, which tells you the same thing, only about agency A," he says. "We're trying to stir these people [OSTP] into action."
Franklin paints a similar picture based on her past experience as a member of a DOE advisory panel.
"There's always confusion between trying to link up [the separate jurisdictions of] NSF and DOE," she says. "It's hard to get the information from both in such a way that you can connect it."
In fact, the challenge of learning to navigate the regulations of the various agencies can be an obstacle to young researchers.
"A young person on a NSF grant may then try to get some DOE money, but they say, 'Well, forget it'. In our field you're either DOE or NSF, and if you're DOE you're not going to get NSF money," Franklin says.
In addition, she says, agencies have different agendas regarding such issues as how much support to give to research conducted outside the country. Franklin says this can affect the way scientists apply for funding.
Harvard scientists confess that they do not always understand the political and bureaucratic machinery behind the agencies that support them. But they add that they are not interested in where the money comes from as much as what it can be used for.
"Whereas some of us are good at science, I wouldn't claim to be sufficiently expert at politics to foresee what will happen [in response to the NSB's working paper]," says Van Vleck Professor of Pure and Applied Physics Paul C. Martin '52, who is also Dean of the Division of Applied Science.
Some Professors also express fears that it might be impossible to improve the coordination of government research funds without harming science.
Jacobsen says he is afraid that a concerted government effort to prioritize research areas might lead to a ranking of basic fields such as chemistry, biology and physics and could increase demand for research that promises quick results and material benefits.
"The path to application isn't always a straightforward one," he says. "Sometimes you have to go through less immediate goals."
In fact, the NSB address this issue in its working paper, devoting an entire section to the distinction between research and development.
The paper notes that it was concern about the "non-commercial nature" of scientific research after World War II that led to the creation of funding agencies such as the NSF to support research without the expectation of immediate monetary returns.
With the end of the Cold War and the emergence of an information-driven economy, the world situation has changed, but the government's reasons for investing in science remain the same, the paper says.
Yet Martin is not so confident in the government's faithfulness to science for science's sake.
"Would a monolithic decision-making body make the best decisions?" he asks. "What worries me is that as the agencies get bigger, they get more politicized."
Martin suggests a more conservative approach to improving federal science administration.
"Part of the resolution comes in better management and the making of wiser decisions by several of the agencies that have a lot of funding," he says. "[We should concentrate on] the across-the-board quality of science management rather than the need for a monolithic agency."
Martin said the NSB's working paper does not make specific criticisms of the DOE, choosing to focus instead on the need for better administration of the entire government funding program.
"If the [DOE] were managed wisely, that's more important," he says.
At the root of Martin's conservatism is fear of what sorts of changes might be made.
"I think it's important to make choices, but I'm sufficiently realistic to believe that the question is who will make those choices and by what criteria?" he says. "[That] will determine whether it's good to have those choices made or not."
The NSB apparently anticipated such criticism, noting in its working paper that "many scientists consider the task [of determining national priorities in science] both undesirable and undoable." However, it said such a task must be faced over the next few years."
However, Zare says NSB is not the appropriate agency to make such changes, suggesting instead that other "stake holders," such as Congress and the Various funding agencies, come together.
"We don't think we're necessarily the right agency to [determine research priorities and coordinate federal funding]," he says.
Harvard and other research institutions are also involved and have a stake in research policy, and universities and academic departments should not ignore the issues raised by the NSB, Zare says.
"[The University's] vision of itself as being self-contained is obsolete. My guess as to where [the higher education system] should go is towards more of an ecosystem," he says, suggesting that universities and the government cooperate to make decisions about research and education.
Martin says Harvard sets science priorities indirectly and on longer time scales through decisions about tenured appointments.
While Martin and his fellow researchers sometimes attribute inefficiencies in science funding to mismanagement within the current system, Zare emphasizes that the severity of the problem makes changes hard to implement.
"This is not a stall," he says. "This is a matter of being dead in the water, [of] not having any agreement about what we want to do."