A Modest Proposal: A Science Initiative for the Obama Administration

Update: I’ve just submitted a very short version of the thought below to our new President-elect (I can’t tell you how much I like writing that)…which is a way of letting y’all know that the Obama campaign’s vision of participatory democracy is open for business here.

Now the work begins.

As discussed on this blog, perhaps too often, federal science funding for the last eight years has been tough to miserable, with research support ranging from just ahead of inflation to notably behind.  Given what’s going on out there (paging Mr. Lehman….) it’s no one’s idea of a safe bet to assume that the dreamt-of doubling of basic research funds is going to occur anytime soon.

But I’d like to lay down one relatively cheap marker that would, I think, have a significant impact on both the culture and the productivity of American scientific research to a degree disproportionate to the underlying amount of dollars.  It’s not a new idea, and hardly original to me –but seeing as it has been completely out of court for almost a decade, I think it bears repeating, even if it is old news to veterans of the business.

It’s simple:  create a pool of no or few-strings attached new money* to support young researchers and scientists-in-training to create the space to foster creative, even wild-ass ideas.

I’m looking at the three engines of daily research:   graduate students; post docs; and young principal investigators.

The basic parameters:  tuition/stipend support for a lot of graduate students — just to pull a number out of the air, say one thousand per year.  (That’s a lot by some measures, not that many for the country as a whole…but the goal at the cutting edge is to make sure that everyone who can in fact work on that edge has the means to do so.  And the point is not so much the support for the students themselves…it’s the indirect support to the top labs across the country the resource of “free” young top talent would provide.)

Same again for postdocs.  Maybe five hundred here –more numbers out of the air.  Up the grant amount for the support/stipend a bit to include some discretionary funding, enough to get the winners to conferences and around to the labs of potential collaborators.  Again such support serves multiple goals:  launching promising careers, subsidizing good labs, and fostering a network of young talented scientists around the country.

And finally, perhaps most important, get real research cash in the hands of young PIs, in a significant expansion of a program President Clinton established in the ’90s.  Currently, the NSF nominates up to twenty young scientists and engineers for grants of up to $80,000 a year for five years (down from 100k/year under Clinton; remember, the Bush years have not been kind to American science, and hence to long term American prosperity and security).  The White House OSTP makes the final selection, and if you are one of the few, the happy few, you get released from the full burden of satisfying the grant process to support your research at the most critical moments of your career.

I’d like to see that juiced — a lot — given my bet that there are more than a dozen or so young researchers on whom it might be worth the country’s money to risk a bet.

And I do mean bet.  All of this is a gamble. Folks selected for any level of this kind of program will be chosen not based on a track record, but on promise, on evidence of creative thinking.

The other  key to the idea is that the application/nomination process be as simple and as stripped down as possible.  None of these phone-book sized grants proposals.  Brief narratives of the projects; a CV; letters of recs and that’s it.  Not even a budget; these would be either be student/postdoc support, which is what it is, or real discretionary research money: go crazy folks, have a party.

Not every person given such free rein to think and work will rise to the opportunity.  But every scholar and thinker I’ve talked to over thirty years or so who has had the chance just to do the work without worrying about justifying results that have not yet been achieved has described a kind of turbocharging of their thinking that comes as they focus on the ideas, and not the grant writing process.

I know that it  goes against the grain to give cash away without a full case being made for all the reasons a given experiment, a given line of research, is likely to produce useful outcomes within the grant period.  Certainly some of these liberated young researchers will be less effective than others.  But the attempt to make a perfect match between funding and product outcomes can produce such risk-averseness — not to mention an enormous amount of time and energy devoted to the mechanics of the funding process that the outcomes are worse and the efficiency of the money spent is less than desired even if everything works out just fine.  If you want to catalyze big hits, then some failure rate has to be endured.

In any event, measured against the federal budget as a whole, even a very ambitious program of no- or loose-strings-attached grants and researcher support doesn’t add up to that much.  This is the cheap end of the business — and it seems to me that this would be a good place to start creating the sense of intellectual play, of possibility that tell the American research community that it is time to start looking at those crazy-like-a-fox ideas again.

Of course, I work at a major research university that will be scrabbling for funds over the next few years, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?  But even disclosing such damning conflict of interest, I have to say that my direct experience here is that the amount of discretionary funding it takes to enable someone to take a flyer on a cool idea is shockingly small, and potentially transformative.

As a side, and program-self-congratulatory-note, check out this video, made by my students on work supported by a pocket of money MIT biologist Anthony Sinskey.**  It describes what happens when someone finds a way to support a wild goose chase, even against his better judgment.

*That is:  don’t pay for this by robbing the already starved existing pools of research funding in the federal budget.

**This video, made by the rest of my students tells the same story with a different twist. Both are fun.

Image:  Harriet Moore, “Michael Faraday in his Laboratory in the Royal Institution,” nineteenth century.

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7 Comments on “A Modest Proposal: A Science Initiative for the Obama Administration”

  1. Vernon Malcolm Says:

    Now that the anti-science, superstition-based intiative presidency is coming to an end, we need several Manhattan projects to make us great again. First we must provide free advertising-based wireless internet to everyone. Then we must criss-cross the land with high speed rail. These two major public works projects will boost us out of the Grotesque Depression. We must develop microorganisms that may be freely distributed and become commonplace to improve our future. Because bovine flatulence is the major source of greenhouse gases, we must develop microorganisms which can be grow in the home that will provide all of our nutrition. Then we must create microorganisms which turn our sewage and waste into fuel. Since paranoid schizophrenia is the cause of racism, bigotry, homelessness, terrorism, ignorance, exploitation and criminality, we must provide put the appropriate medications, like lithium, in the water supply. We must also allow dangerous individuals who refuse free mental health care to be required to be implanted with drug release devices and microorganisms to improve their mindsets. We should encourage international organizations to do likewise. In order to fund this we must nationalize the entire financial, electrical and transportation system and abolish the silly notion that each industry should be regulated by its peers. Furthermore, as feudalism is the threat to progress everywhere, we must abolish large land holdings by farmers, foresters or religions and instead make all such large landholding part of the forest service so our trees may diminish greenhouse gases. We must abolish executive pay and make sure all employees in a company are all paid equally. We must abolish this exploitative idea of trade and make every home self sufficient through the microorganisms we invent.

  2. Tom Says:

    Intereesting Vernon, but perhaps a bit beyond the scope of this post.

    As for infrastructure projects — I think a bunch would be a good idea; wireless not so much, imho, but rail and a new power grid float my boat.

  3. jre Says:

    Vernon had me going right up to line 6. I think it was the “bovine flatulence” that twigged me to it.

  4. […] Thomas Levenson at The Inverse Square Blog proposes a science initiative for the Obama administration. […]

  5. upnorth minnesota Says:

    Just wondering if you see any place in this incentive plan for people who are thinking, creating, inventing outside the hallowed halls of academe? or is their work to hard to legitimize?

  6. […] on a Modest Proposal In this post, I laid out a first marker for what the new administration could do for science, calling  for an […]

  7. […] Thomas Levenson at The Inverse Square Blog proposes a science initiative for the Obama administration. […]

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