Why not give Lee Hood an open research tab of $100m?

Brooke Struck has written an interesting comment on Dan Sarewitz’s article “Saving Science.” Struck argues we should balance internal and external pressures to perform research. Here’s my take on it. The first part I posted to SciSP and is indented.

I’m not persuaded that the military did all the things Sarewitz ascribes to them. I thought that was what Vannevar Bush did at OSRD, which the military could not think to do. The folks who got mobilized by Bush worked on the problems Bush’s folks identified, not on the ones the military most wanted–they already had people working on those things. You can’t always get what you want, and all. Bush proposed a National Research Foundation to fill the same role as OSRD, standing outside professional establishments (but now establishments such as medicine) to mobilize directed research for civilian purposes, working outside the establishment, drawing on the frontiers of science, with institutional-scale resources. When successful, the new work makes obsolete the problems trending in the establishment work. The frontiers of science part was to add to the available tools through discovery and training to do the other part. Instead, we got the National Science Foundation. Superficially close but significantly different.

One might say, sometimes external pressures are effective–necessity parenting invention and the like–and sometimes internal motivations are the better guides. Do we really think Stephen Hawking will do better work if, as Sarewitz proposes, company shareholders demand Hawking do his work to make a company more profitable? Or because a visionary and passionate celebrity demands results? Or because a militaristic director has declared war on a problem and assigns Dr. Hawking a place in a regimented order?

Vannevar Bush argued that there was room for research programs fully invested in the demands of established interests–federal agencies, military, or professional consensus. For these, mission defines projects defines results defines metrics. Go for it. But Bush also envisioned room for research that served no master but what individuals imagined. Free play of free intellects. Seriously. Positive samadhi. No superego institutional surrogate needed or helpful. The metrics of mission-directed research do not have much to say about free play research.

This is the problem that sports coaches have. Everyone playing has been selected for talent. But some are motivated by external pressure to perform. Yell at them. Make rules. They don’t realize yet what they are capable of. Some just need guidance on technique. Take them aside. Make suggestions. Others redefine the game itself through their play. You don’t teach that, can’t require it. Stand back and deal with it. More order and pressure or ideology does not necessarily produce discovery or produce more of it.

Perhaps, then, to vary your point, we don’t have a particular need to balance, for each and every research endeavor, powerful internal pressures and powerful external pressures. Nor to measure diverse research contexts with common metrics. Nor to try to compare and flatten research conducted in such different contexts. We should expect that some research projects will be driven by pragmatic concerns; others by informed, motivated curiosity to find things out. The problem is to judge what needs to be done in any particular instance. The overall effect matters. The character and quality of the judges matter, too.

The quality of judgment evidenced by those contributing to research is more important than the money. Committees of reviewers dutifully scoring proposals and prudently advising institutional money pots will reflect professional consensus and protect established positions. Institutional grants managers without any particular research or administrative status themselves will have to work within rules and procedures, implementing a system that must be followed (and which, then, may be readily exploited by those competing for attention).

If we find we lack meaningful discovery across all our institutionalization of science, for all our sophisticated development of science policy, then perhaps we should stop looking to performance metrics tied to variations on the same theme. Rules in place of judgment reflect fear of judgment. Uniformity reflects fear of whim, of favoritism, of capriciousness, of waste. Institutional science offers vast resources, but it also reflects a default fear of scientists–that they will be wasteful, foolish, mediocre, lazy, fraudulent, unproductive, undirected, uninterested in solving the pressing problems created by today’s established interests and concerns. Vannevar Bush argued (in Modern Arms and Free Men) that there are two motivations for organizations:

One is fear, utilized in the elaboration of systems of discipline and taboos. The other is the confidence of one man in another, confidence in his integrity, confidence that he is governed by a moral code transcending expediency. Most governing organizations have involved a mixture of these motivations; they always will as long as the nature of man remains unaltered, but one may be controlling and the other subsidiary, incidental, or extraneous. There has been a general feeling that the second is the higher motivation, but that it is inherently week in dealing with the harsh and complex conditions of existence. (7)

Is there room in science policy for confidence in the integrity of others? Would providing, say, Lee Hood with an open tab of up to $100 million to go after whatever the Institute for Systems Biology might chose to pursue be better than asking him and his scientists to beg “competitively” for money in hundreds of little dollops based on proposals to be reviewed by consensus committees? [Oh, I know, Lee Hood is a big thinker who isn’t so good managing money–but you get the point–pick anyone you like that gets outside institutional thinking and tries to get something done. Short of “grandiose projects” and “mediocrity” (to worry Vannevar Bush’s worry), why do we have all this hairy, wasteful apparatus for tiny grants? It’s like there’s an intentional effort to contain science to incremental goals or perverse metrics.]

Is it possible to have at least some portion of science policy based on confidence, even powerful, risk-taking, fearless confidence, that some researchers of great integrity might do more to attract talent and direct work, discover and produce, than any system of discipline and taboos, no matter how prudent and rationalized it might be? Or must institutional money always and best be parceled out by funding committees supervised by lawyers and accountants to “teams”–even transdisciplinary teams–also supervised by lawyers and accountants, with science policy dictating that all such committees and teams must have the proper and trendy ideological profiles and credentials?

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