In a 2009 op ed, New York Times columnist David Brooks noted that America was founded on a puritanical thrift and these original tenets are being undermined by a change in political forces and societal expectations. Brooks theorizes that the major indicator of this shift is the extraordinary loss of homes, ironically, the most visible external indicator that an individual has ‘made it’ in our society; the loss of iconic car brands; and, the health care debate. These same forces are at place in the basic sciences – an original thriftiness in how discoveries, work and training gets done in the academy now challenged by loss of scientific capability (in advanced physics, computing and stem cell biology); loss of laboratories by junior, middle and senior scientists; and an unease with the bust and boom cycles of stimulus money, supplemental funds and the ‘cliff’ scenario. Funding in the basic sciences is inextricably linked to the discovery process.
To meet the challenges in the public sector, government has developed a number of interventional strategies that are still experimental. Superficially, it appears the banks have been saved (although their souls are still in question). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has similarly fiddled with funding mechanisms, and the data of these experiments are still being collected. Certainly the political realities of funding scientific discoveries may seem like a luxury. But science produces, and the products are valuable. Products include new medicines, new machines, and new ideas.
Learning is the enduring product of the academy. Universities produce the workforce who populate government, pharma, biotech, and the academy. How does this get done - by taxpayer money, of course (and through some tuition dollars). Arguments exist regarding the right way to sustain and expand knowledge and the current funding debates create room for thinking about new mechanisms.
At this point, David Brooks will probably raise one eyebrow and ask, why am I named in this piece?
The NIH Roadmap grants are notable examples of interventional mechanisms that are under scrutiny at the agency. For example, the interdisciplinary research consortium (IRC) grants are an experiment that said interdisciplinary work itself was a goal and that interdisciplinarity could solve intractable problems. What we discover next as a scientific community depends on the recognition that solving intractable biomedical problems (as they arise) is not an oxymoron, but a necessity of society, akin to shelter.
At the end of the day, science relies on a set of political (national and local) realities that shape how and what learning occurs, and society has an expectation that new discoveries will impact their daily lives in the form of new medicine and new knowledge. We don’t have JP Morgan to save scientists at the bench, so, our president and congress should consider the NIH and NSF (National Science Foundation) as important parts of a healthy nation and help ensure that the momentum of discover continues and that assets are available, to ensure the creation of a stable network for discovery. We have new ideas for how to get the biggest bang for every buck and these ideas should be sustained.
I think David Brooks may still be confused about his relationship to this blog post, but perhaps can be persuaded that as long as the academy is the home to discovery research, and as long as the public is funding its work, there is a requirement for public funds to flow in a way that makes every dollar convert to new ideas and impact human health as quickly and efficiently as possible.