17 January 2011

Ike's other warning

In this day and age everyone knows Eisenhower's warning regarding the growing military-industrial complex. His lesser known, but equally important, fear bears mention on the 50th anniversary of his famous farewell address.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
It is undeniable that we have failed in both regards, an eventuality Eisenhower likely could not imagine. Public policy is held hostage to exaggerated (and occasionally fabricated) research claims, while government grant money has poisoned innovation and scientific integrity.  A 2005 study of scientists who receive NIH funding found:

Highlighting the absurdity of the status quo, the study was (in part) funded by the NIH but you cannot read it unless you pay Nature (or belong to an organization who has). Indeed, federal grant dollars currently fund over one quarter of all biomedical research in this country. Worse yet, federal dollars fund a majority of the most influential studies. Yet the average citizen is allowed to read it only if the authors publish it in an open journal.

Further vindicating Ike's warning about government's role in the death of intellectual curiosity Paul Romer's words from From Poverty to Prosperity are insightful:
..instead of young scientists getting grant funding to go off and do whatever they want in their twenties, they're working in a lab where somebody in his forties or fifties is the principal investigator in charge of the grant.  They're working as apprentices, almost, under the senior person.  If we're not careful, we could let our institutions, things like tenure and hierarchical structures and peer review, slowly morph over time so that old guys control more and more of what's going on and the young people have a harder and harder time doing something really different, and that would be would be a bad thing for these processes of growth and change.
Jason Hoyt did the hard work and shows Romer's fears to be justified:

I don't have a solution for the entire problem, but I do know where to start. It is unconscionable that the public does not have access to research for which it paid, much less the data that was gathered in conducting that research. In its place we have peer-review. A farcical process widely adopted in the 1960s (see Bora Zivkovic's history of science and journalism) wherein favoritism and friendship take the place of oversight.

Beyond a reworking of publishing standards the world of science needs to change how grants are doled out. This system too is sclerotic and plagued by cronyism. The state must reassert its role in balancing and molding our institutions into vehicles for the advancement of our own free society, rather than those few scientists connected or unethical enough to advance themselves at everyone else's expense.

Making research data accessible, along with its findings, and fixing the system by which the tools to conduct it are allocated would prevent many instances of fraud from occurring and ensure that when it does it may be quickly discovered.

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