Yesterday, I was puttering around the office doing some mind-numbing tasks and decided that I would zone out to something on my iPod, which ended up being Wait Wait...don't tell me! There was a question that concerned a research study. The study on auctions showed that if you are able to get a potential customer to hold an object for 30 seconds, in this case a cup, they are likely to bid MORE than the retail value of the object. I believe they said in 4 out of 7 cases the person bid more than the retail value, knowing the retail value. The conclusion was that holding an object for even 30 seconds confers a sense of ownership to that person.
P.J. O'Rourke commented something along the lines of "Please tell me my tax dollars were not used to fund this study."
Which is a funny line, but shows a lack of how science is funded in this country and what is wrong with that system.
I'm going to focus on research funding at the NIH since that is what I know best. There are two major types of research funding, in my opinion, at the NIH - targeted and non-targeted. Targeted funding includes things like the over $2 Billion that was set-aside for "bioterrorism" funding in the years following 9/11. As the linked article shows, this lucrative bolus of money drew talented researchers away from important research areas like tuberculosis, which kills 2 million people each year, to chase shadows of bioterrorism. The other type of research is non-targeted research. The NIH is made up of a number of "Institutes" and "Centers", for example:
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) - Est. 1949
- National Cancer Institute (NCI) - Est. 1937
- National Eye Institute (NEI) - Est. 1968
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Est. 1970
- National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) - Est. in 1962
These Institutes and Centers are targeted in that each focuses on a particular disease or organ system; and, within these centers they often have "targeted" research such as "Mechanism of Alcohol-Induced Organ Damage" from the NIAAA. However, here is the important distinction. For the most part, at this level the types of targeting are determined by SCIENTISTS, not by lawmakers. Scientists who are determining what areas are primed for exploration, perhaps due to new types of tools or new insights into a disease.
What difference does it make?
Let me relate two stories to explain.
I once took a grant-writing class from an excellent researcher who happened to be an entomologist. He related this story to us of how in the mid 1980s he had submitted a grant to some US-based agency in Argentina (I believe, it's been almost 20 years since I heard the story...which makes me depressed). It was a small grant that wanted to study invasive plants and their relationship with insects, or some such thing. Well, then the Contra thing happened and the state department decided they wanted to help Argentina, who was also funding the Contras. So, one of the things they decided to do was fund any research projects that were focused in Argentina, to the tune of $2 million that first year. Well, guess how many research projects were submitted at that point? Two. So, this guy got $1 million to study his project which probably had a $50,000 pricetag (average size of NSF basic science project at the time was about $50,000). THAT is targeted research. I can give you another example of the same thing happening to a fellow graduate student, who went into Hiv research at the exact moment that congress first put aside a bazillion dollars for Hiv. He got an R01, which is an Investigator award for a project at $200,000 a year for 5 years. About six months after the funding started I asked how the project was going. He said it was a fundamentally flawed idea and they were using the money for something else. Granted, the something else ended up showing some important information about Hiv in macrophages.
So, that is targeted funding. Some good things come out of it but you end up with a lot of inferior science being funded at a cost to the taxpayers. The other side of the coin.
Recently at UNC there was a scientist who was studying cell death in neurons. Cell death is a normal part of how the nervous system dies, we make too many cells and then some die in a very tightly regulated way. This scientist had developed a niche in this very large field and had managed to snag an NIH grant and then two to study the basic underpinings of this process. The nuts and bolts of how this system works. This project went through numerous NIH study section reviews and was critiqued by a panel of scientists. After doing the research he was able to describe lots of important aspects of how neural cells die AND LO AND BEHOLD...
In a paper published in Nature Cell Biology, Allyson Vaughn and Mohanish Deshmukh have identified a strikingly similar mechanisms used by neurons and cancer cells to evade cell death...Restricting the cell death pathway is critical for a neuron’s long term survival as well as for cancer cell evasion of apoptosis. These results bring into focus the possibility that the multiple mechanisms known to be evolved by neurons to restrict apoptosis could be the same ones adapted by mitotic cells during their progression toward cancer.
By understanding how neurons die, we might also understand how cancer cells AVOID dying. See, cancer cells are regular cells gone bad. When they go bad, they are supposed to die, to go through apoptosis. But, they have figured out a way around it. This research suggests a new way of understanding that process. Good science often has this effect, researching one area leads to breakthroughs or at the very least ideas related to other areas. And, this was good science. It was good science because it was based on ideas from scientists and it was put through the NIH peer-review wringer. When only 10% of projects are being funded, then you know that only the cream of the crop is being funded and performed. When you throw money at a problem because it sounds like a good idea then you start funding some bad ideas and some bad science.
So, back to P.J. O'Rourke. In this case the study was funded by "Ohio State's Jensen-Wallin-Young Fund and by Illinois State's Caterpillar Scholars Fund", so his tax dollars were not used. But, I would argue that this is the type of study represents the science that should be funded. It is based on understanding the basic principles of how something works. By understanding the basic principles we stand a better chance of understanding the larger concepts. For instance, the researchers from Ohio State mention one obvious way in which this research finding could be of immediate benefit to American citizens:
Retailers have been using the try-then-buy tactic for years, said Wolf, who is now an assistant professor of information systems at Illinois State University. For example, car dealers routinely send prospective buyers out on test drives, and pet shop owners encourage people to play with the puppies in the window.
Understanding the attachment this tactic can create could make consumers aware of their own susceptibility, Wolf said.
When testing out new cars, for example, and "going in there knowing that you are going to feel like raising your price, maybe you can be better prepared not to make a hasty purchase that you'll regret later on," he said.
Beyond that, think about how this knowledge can cross-pollinate ideas. If it only takes 30 seconds to start to give people a sense of ownership, how can that be used in schools? Passing out books to kids and asking them to read the back cover? Will they feel a sense of ownership and a desire to read it NOT because they are being asked but just because it is in their hands? And, of course there is politics. Working that booth and want people to take home your literature? See if you can get them to hold it for 30 seconds.