Academic journal article Policy Review

Investing in Bad Science

Academic journal article Policy Review

Investing in Bad Science

Article excerpt

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT expends vast amounts of money on "research" of innumerable kinds. Many of these expenditures are unwise and unwarranted, falling into the category of pork or overlapping with work that would otherwise be performed by private-sector entities. Public funding for scientific research should largely be limited to basic scientific discoveries or proof-of-principle experiments--which would reasonably be defined as public goods--rather than efforts to extend science into marketable technologies or products.

From an economic perspective, one can justify government funding for public goods because they are far enough removed from "fencing" through intellectual property rights that no individual or company has sufficient economic incentive to pay for the research. If an entity cannot capture at least part of the financial gains from the research investment, the research, in effect, supplies information on which anyone can capitalize. No one ought to be able to monopolize basic scientific principles or natural phenomena, and our intellectual property regime does, in fact, attempt to prevent that. (The recent Supreme Court decision in Mayo v. Prometheus reiterates that point.)

However, there is a far less persuasive rationale for government funding of research that can be fenced sufficiently to provide a return on investment, and there are other critical determinants--in the sense of limitations--of what research should legitimately be federally funded. It should a) follow recognized experimental methodologies, b) be in the national interest, and c) focus on nontrivial questions or problems. As discussed below, these spare and seemingly obvious criteria are often controverted. And although such exceptions to sound principles represent a small percentage of overall federal research funding, in a time of belt-tightening at the nation's premier research organizations the dollar amounts could make a real difference to legitimate, high-quality research. Moreover, the fact that certain organizations are systematic and serial offenders cries out for reform.

Golden fleece vs. golden goose

FROM 1975 TO 1987, Democratic Senator William Proxmire presented monthly "Golden Fleece Awards" to identify what he viewed as wasteful government spending. Since then, many politicians and other critics of federal spending have blasted various government-funded research projects.

Some of these criticisms clearly have been wrong-headed. An example is this dismissal of a supposedly unworthy research project by former Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin: "Sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not."

The problem is that Palin didn't know what she didn't know. A century of studies on the genetics of Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly, an organism that shares about half of its genes with humans, has yielded information critical to understanding the process of aging and how genes work.

In order to call attention to this sort of misapprehension, several congressmen from both sides of the aisle have gotten together with various research advocacy organizations to create the "Golden Goose Awards" to "highlight the often unexpected or serendipitous nature of basic scientific research by honoring federally funded researchers whose work may once have been viewed as unusual, odd or obscure, but has produced important discoveries benefitting society in significant ways."

Jim Cooper, the congressman behind the idea, clarified the award's intention: "We've all seen reports that ridicule odd-sounding research projects as examples of government waste. The Golden Goose Award does the opposite. It recognizes that a valuable federally funded research project may sound funny, but its purpose is no laughing matter." Cooper and Alan Leshner, who heads the American Association for the Advancement of Science, penned a precious little op-ed in the Washington Post to describe the rationale for the award and to announce this year's winners. …

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