Monday, April 24, 2017

Scientific funding

It seems to me that most people don't realize how much science can be hurt by fluctuations in scientific funding. And that's because most people don't realize how slow and vulnerable "scientific process" is.

I mean, if I didn't know better, I'd probably assumed that money to science is like fuel to a car. You give it a bit more gas, you move forward faster. You take your foot from a pedal, the car goes a bit slower. With this logic, a dip in funding would be just a dip. There was a surge during Obama administration, there could be a dip now, not a big deal, right?

Wrong, sadly. The nature of science is that it relies on thousands of individual people acquiring idiosyncratic skills in a quest for some highly fragmented knowledge. It takes about 12 years to develop a professional scientist: 12 years of manual painful nurturing handover from one person to another. It's quite an investment! And only after these ~12 years this person is ready to inherit one thread of  research, leading in one unique direction.

And that's exactly what makes dips in funding so devastating: it would cut through these unique threads and kill them, tear them off, strangling scientific progress. People are not bears: they cannot hibernate with their labs through the funding crisis, to start from the same place in four years from now. They also cannot just start doing everything 10 times slower (and cheaper) as lizards on a cold morning. They either run their labs (paying salaries, breeding animals, pumping air through HVAC systems etc.), or they stop, and this particular thread of research collapses. The running costs are pretty high. And people need to eat and feed families, so without funding they change careers, or move to other countries, but either way they disappear from science. If a limb gets ischemic - it dies.

Therefore a decrease in scientific funding is not at all like trying to save money by not eating out for a month. You can stop eating out, and you can start eating out again; that's not a big deal. But a decrease in scientific funding, for a taxpayer, is more like not feeding their dog for a year, or not paying their mortgage. When in a year you change your mind, the dog is dead, and the house is taken by the bank. And while it's technically possible to get a new house and a new dog, it suddenly becomes insanely more difficult, much more expensive, and takes way too long.

And for a government, to stop paying for science, is not just about not continuing the work of their predecessors, or correcting their plans in some way. It's more like consciously burning everything their predecessors built, in a pyre. Which is thing not unheard of, obviously, but at least in some cases (say, in case of medical insurance) this ritual pyre is at least advertised as such, and people have at least a chance of forming an opinion about it. There is some discourse, some discussion. In case of scientific funding, I feel, this discussion is largely absent, which is particularly troubling.

Another argument for the importance of scientific literacy, I guess.

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