Why Does Poor Funding Hurt Science?
June 13, 2008
ERV has a really nice post up today explaining why she is going to give it her best shot at eventually becoming a PI, but that she will also be very happy with some other scientific career if the PI thing doesn’t work out.
What do I wanna do?
Um, be a PI. Get to play in a lab forever. Contribute to my field. Be respected. Be loved by my students. hehehe My dream is to do research until I die, thus to have the opportunity to totally traumatize my grad students by letting them discover my cold, dead body slumped over the tissue culture hood one morning (ah, if I could only be there to laugh at them!!!)
But do I plan on being a PI? Do I hang my hopes and dreams on it? Will I be crushed if I cant be a PI?
The reason she is not totally optimistic that she will get the opporunity to eventually be a PI is that the biomedical sciences funding situation currently–and for the foreseeable future–totally sucks ass.
There aint enough money for all the good ideas people think up. And contrary to the claims of Creationists, if you dont win grants, if you dont bring in money, you dont get tenure, and you dont get to be a PI forever and ever, and you cant use your 92-year-old dead body to traumatize your grad students.
We all have a gut instinct that this abysmally shitty funding situation and the consequent contraction of the PI population–with creative PIs failing to get tenure, losing their positions, or never even getting their first shot at independence–is really, really bad for science. But why?
ERV asserts a particular theory for why this is so bad:
[W]hat I worry about with this dismal funding climate are the lost ideas. The great ideas that arent getting funded. The great ideas that are never being tested. The great ideas that might be lost, over something as stupid as money.
Well, I’ve got a different theory. I disagree that the problem with poor funding is that some particular MASSIVE BREAKTHROUGH IDEEZ!@!!!111!!! will be forever lost if particular PIs drop out of the system.
Scientific progress does not really rely on the special unique genius of specific creative individuals. Scientific progress is made in the aggregate when lots of hard-working, bright, enthusiastic people try out all kinds of ideas and see where they lead. The more ideas that get tried out per unit time, the faster science progresses.
But it is absurd to think that certain scientific ideas will somehow “die” with one particular originator if that originator is not able–for example, due to funding problems–to bring the idea to fruition. This is one important way in which science differs from the arts and literature: science is constrained by physical reality and valid descriptions of that reality will eventually come to light completely irrespective of the fortunes of any one scientist.
So, shitty funding doesn’t suck because it means some particular supergenius idea will die on the vine. It sucks because overall scientific progress gets slower the fewer people there are doing science.