Hmpf, vol. 2

I came by a report by The Science Coalition called “Sparking Economic Growth: Federal Funding + University Research = Innovation, Companies and Jobs“. Title says it all. The Science Coalition says it is “a non-profit, nonpartisan organization of 50 fo the leading public and private research universities in the United States.” The next sentence, though, tips it. TSC is “dedicated to sustaining the federal government’s commitment to U.S. leadership in basic science.” That is, lobby the public to support more government research funding for universities. Let’s see if the argument holds up.

First, let’s be clear. Folks can create a loser of an argument and still there’s something to the underlying practice. Just one can’t say the folks with the loser argument are “really right”. Rather, one can’t dismiss the practice just because it is represented by feckless folks. We don’t abandon science just because there are bad teachers out there. Second, this is a big adult report written with lots of glossy and pre-meditation. There’s no complaining I’m being mean or too hard on it. This is no kiddy document done by darling dears out of love for crayons. It’s a big time shill for billions, so let’s give it a poke. I only have time for a single sentence, really. There’s plenty more. I’ll try to get to the statement of “facts” because that is just too choice. But perhaps a sentence is enough to make the point.

In Sparking, we find a nice claim right up front:

“When public money is invested in university-based basic research there is a tremendous return on investment.”

This is a statement in the form of rhetoric of those things that it’s hard not to want to be true. If folks are going to do research, then wow wouldn’t it be great if they did things that created a big return on investment. Just I don’t get what the return on investment actually is, or why research funding is an investment at all, or why basic research matters so much to returns on investment compared to say applied research. Let’s parse this buzzard.

The idea of “investment” suggests a need for “return” and some venture objectives that go with. One might think that research services are procured rather than invested in. Or that university proposed work is awarded or subsidized. How does all of this funding come to be investment? A common definition of invest is “to provide money for profit”. What is it that the government wants out of the work? Presumably the “return” isn’t monetary. And how long is it willing to wait? 50 years? So in a lot of ways, the idea of investing is inapt. Why would that be the language the Coalition adopts? After all, these are universities. But they are using the language of speculation, of business. It’s like they are appealing to government greed, or risk behaviors, or what to do with having way too much money. I find it very odd that universities would not use the language of exploration or knowledge or education or imagination. Instead, the whole endeavor is framed as an investment for profit by the universities. It is as if they *want* to be in business rather than education. When organizations choose not to use a vocabulary central to their activities, one has reason to question the motives, competence, and data.

Second, what is meant by “basic” research? Here is a list of definitions of basic research over the years. We can see “basic” means something along the lines of “systematic study” + “knowledge” + “fundamental aspects of phenomena” + “no specific applications in mind.” It’s actually something of a prissy definition.

One can see in it the roots of an argument that not all investigation has to have an immediate application to someone’s business. That studying genetics might come around to have bearing on disease. Studying the atom might lead to new forms of energy. Sort of an argument physicists and astronomers and geologists might make to explain why they are not working for a company. Or, within a company, why not all scientists aren’t employed on product development. In some definitions of basic research, there is the claim that if work is patentable, then it wasn’t basic research. Not sure about that, since a lot of systematic study these days requires building instrumentation that may be inventive, even if the investigation is about stuff that isn’t. The idea, however, is that the research is intended to be aloof from commercial issues. There is no need to feed product lines or even where there is new instrumentation, the reason to create it isn’t to invention industrial property.

In any event, universities don’t use “basic” in any defined way. They want pretty much anything they do to be called “basic” research because it is done at a university. Scholars futzing around creating knowledge without a clue in the world about what the import might be is a small subset of the research funding received by a university. If we really thought university researchers were clueless about applications and markets, then it would be obvious there was a need for technology transfer. If all university is basic, and that means the investigators are clueless of application, then why we need administrators to bridge the cluelessness gap.

Oddly, the Coalition doesn’t make a case for technology transfer offices getting any funding or even any visibility. The companies the report lists just spring up like mushrooms. That’s because technology transfer happens as a folkway, like childbirth—it is complicated and painful, but mom doesn’t have to be a specialist to do it, and no one can do it for her. Thus we get universities explaining that technology transfer really happens a lot of ways, through publication and instruction, students getting jobs and faculty consulting, conference presentations and open houses. Really, that’s how it all happens. Universities just have the corny policies on IP and technology transfer offices for show, to appear to comply with grant regulations. It’s all simply incoherent. It only sounds good if you skim it. Yeah, yeah, wonderful.

We need also to turn to the idea that universities are the best place to “invest” in “basic research”. On the surface of it, I don’t see why this would be. Why not more government funding for basic research in industry? Industry has had a wonderful track record creating new technology and world leadership and jobs and space food sticks.

And, why not more funding for basic research at independent research foundations? Look at the work at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, or the Myelin Repair Foundation, or the Institute for Systems Biology, or the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Why not funding for basic research there, where it would be right up against folks totally focused on their work, without any of the overhead for teaching, academic appointments, and the fussy cycle of an academic calendar?

And, why not funding for more folks forming companies along with all that basic research funding? Get the basic research out into focused, investor-driven timelines and really drive that horse through the mud. That’s what Venter did, and boy did you see the universities pull out their own whips to keep up.

And why does it matter if other countries might be “getting ahead” of the US in *basic* research? Can’t we learn from others? Is it a race? Why are we trying to do it all ourselves? I can see why we might want to manufacture some stuff–at least if we can do it as well as our foreign counterparts. But that’s not basic research, really, is it? I wonder what the government’s return is for investing in applied research, or development of product? For that matter, how many companies have been created off federal funding at universities that *aren’t even in the US*? That is, since IP and technology transfer don’t figure in the Coalition’s view of tremendous return, how sloppy do universities get with their special inventive stuff? Well now.

The overall effect of this report is like someone singing a nonsense song so you will go to sleep. Very pleasant, there, about the slithy toves….. where do I put my wallet, again?

So we learn here that when the government acts as a profiteer, the stuff that has tremendous profits is work done by folks with no clue about applications to industry, and that after the fact they rather repeatedly stumble into stuff good enough to form companies and make a bunch of money, so it is not material whether those returns are realized by the government, or by the universities, or by the investors and principals in start up companies who are aiming to make a profit. A very odd profiteer, the government, looking only to the happiness of investors and scientists becoming accidental industrialists. We will mention here that research universities lose money—in the millions—on their federally sponsored research. So clearly the Coalition is in it for something other than, like, financial solvency. It’s great to see the altruism, but it’s strangely modest that it’s not called out more clearly.

If we really wanted to go at it, we’d look at the companies cited as successful and ask how much of the federal investment in *basic* research is actually represented here. Further, we can ask, after we get past five or six recognized company names, whether the rest are viable, doing anything meaningful, and how their situation represents a “tremendous” return on government “investment” in basic research.

I’d say, a tremendous return would be a cure for a disease, or a form of energy that doesn’t pollute and costs next to nothing, or a new food crop that takes little water, is easy to harvest without slave labor or picked so green it stays rock hard, and tastes like a slice of heaven. I’m not talking about space food sticks, here. A tremendous return is a company that creates jobs that last for years, rather than one that operates long enough to get bought out by something big and then shut down. Of course, if basic research is done for knowledge’s sake, then it’s sort of spooky that the knowledge takes the form of venture backed companies. I’d have thought it would be fattened libraries and conferences.

So show me the tremendous return on the basic research as represented by these companies. I’m not seeing it. Feels like a drop in the bucket. Looks like a fruit fly egg in the pie. Smells like a shill job for something fluffy we should all want, if we want the government to act as a profiteering investor.

I know–since when did universities have to be, like, honest? Isn’t it enough to come off as confident and sincere? And we wonder why universities are having a time coming up with government support these days.

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