Sunday, April 10, 2005

More on funding and research

Daniel Lemire responds to my lament on research. Daniel, you did understand me correctly, so there is no confusion there. :)

I wrote this long rant about how the funding that computer scientists need is not insignificant, because of student support. I then realized that this is not what I wanted to respond to. The real issue is this:
if you need a lot of cash to do your research, you’ve got to justify the use of the money. Justify it to whom? To the people who give you the money. This seems only fair. If you want to do research for its own sake, and you also want a lot of money, well, tough.
But this is the point I am lamenting. The very idea that you justify research by drawing a direct lline between that research and some promised benefit in the near future is problematic. Of course research needs to have direction. If I am going to study the higher moment properties of the distribution formed by the length of the hind legs of ring-tailed wallabies, I should presumably have some reason why this is relevant. But I cannot draw a direct line between this distribution and (say) a cure for cancer, and nor should I be expected to. I would argue that the point of government funding is precisely to fund projects that have no near term monetary value, but fit into a long term research agenda as perceived by a jury of one's peers (like say a grant review panel).

Once again, I defer to Timothy Gowers and his masterful lecture, where he spells out in detail how research contributions can be twisted, gnarly things that are hard to linearize. My point is merely that if one believes that long-term research add value in terms of adding to our base of knowledge about the world (Platonic or otherwise), then one cannot merely say, 'do it on your own time; Einstein did !'. Even he built GR on a mathematical edifice that had been in development for a while, with frankly no clear "practical" purpose prior to his work.


  1. And of course, since most of the money does go to support PhD students, the main thing is that those students go and do great things in the world. Cutting support means that those first rate peple might decide to go to Germany or Europe or any other place except the US to do their graduate studies. And then they would do their things abroad, and not in the US. While the US has the infrastructure, the hightech industry is largely based on foreigners. If the US would lose those people, it would lose its edge in the long run.

    And the research is also useful, BTW. 

    Posted by Anonymous

  2. You can't be funding all your research. You have to make choices. You propose to rely on "one's peers". You assume you have peers, and you assume that decise *can* be taken by peers.

    A first assumption is that the one's peers can tell what is going to be important over the long run. So, the public should just trust them to do the right thing. Ok, I'll go along though I could question this as well. (Hint: peers favor what they do themselves, and will put down what they don't understand or whatever questions what they, themselves, are doing.)

    But how does the public can tell if nuclear physics should receive more or less than differential geometry in funding? One what basis? There are no "peers" there to do decide... Someone who is neither an expert in differential geometry nor nuclear physics must decide... and they must decide on what basis?

    And don't claim that there are no choices to be made. There are!!!

    If I look at Canadian funding agencies, they fund specific fields, and not others. For example, multidisciplinary research is typically badly funded. So, you have to "fit" in a nest: physics, chemistry and so on. Already, a "choice" was made, and it wasn't made by one's peers. These are political choices.

    Then different fields are funded differently. The rumor has it that mathematics is funding way better than other comparable fields because the Canadian math. lobbying forces are formidable (not sure this is a true statement, but I heard it often).

    For example, "learning objects" initiatives got major funding for the last 3 to 4 years... I mean really large sums. This was not decided by "peers", but by government officials who were lobbyied by the eLearning industry and by various academics.

    Nanotechnology used to get large sums as well (I don't know now). These decisions were not taken by "peers" because the field didn't really exist in Canada when funding was initially granted...

    How are you going to decide whether mathematics gets more funding than philosophy or computer science? What is your basis for comparison??? Fund everyone equally? What is equal...? Does philosophy requires as much funding as nuclear physics?

    It seems that the only sane basis is "what does this research buy us?". This can be somewhat quantified. You can be vastly wrong, of course... AI was valued highly and it delivered very little... number theory was seen has having no industrial potential, and we got RSA... But because something is hard to measure, should you just give up and not try to measure it? I don't think so. A bad measure is better than no measure. This is why counting the number of publications someone produces is still done routinely. We all know this is a crappy measure, but it is better than no measure at all, and we can always qualify it later.

    Lastly, you bring in the assumption that the USA or Canada need more graduate students to remain competitive. What is the basis of this assumption? What evidence do you have??? 

    Posted by Daniel Lemire

  3. I think the more important point from your original post was the following:

    What I mean is that as opportunities for making money off of research increase, the expectations for doing so also increase, and soon, you are having to explain why you are NOT doing profitable research.
    One could be happily content doing research that doesn't require much money. But how many CS departments would be happy with that? Likely, one will feel pressure with respect to bringing in one's "share" of extramural funding (often, there is a very clear expectation of $X/year). And this may not even be so unreasonable, due to decreasing funding from other sources and the need of administrators to justify higher salaries for CS faculty. So, regardless of what you're interested in doing, you find yourself pressured to change research focus to something more in alignment with the trend.

    Posted by Mike Stiber

  4. "A bad measure is better than no measure"? Really, Daniel, that's just embarassing. You're a scientist; you should know better.

    Posted by Jeff Erickson

  5. "Dear Sir:

    I am writing this proposal in order to study the higher moment properties of the distribution formed by the length of the hind legs of the ring-tailed wallabies (Orbis caudus wallabus) of Australia. I can make a direct link between this research and a cure for cancer."

    Unfortunately, in biology research this is how all grants submitted to the NIH have to start off these days. In order to be funded one has to make a direct link from one's proposed work to a contribution to medicine/health. Gone are the days when one could submit a grant to fund research on basic biology: how homing pigeons navigate, or how the 17-year cicada counts underground for 17 years, without relating it in some way to human health.

    I say "unfortunately," because I do believe we are missing out on fantastic insights into our natural world by confining ourselves to narrow fields of research which aim to "contribute to our understanding of X medical disease." One case in point: Drosophila (fruit fly) research had been funded for over 80 years before it suddenly became apparent that there were genes shared between humans and flies, and that some of the human counterparts of genes that earlier were discovered to play a role in setting up and differentiating the different segments of this insect's body actually play important roles in protecting the human body from cancer. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that fly research has played a very large role in helping to identify both oncogenes (human genes that, when mutated, can lead to cancer) and tumor suppressors (genes that help protect the body against developing cancer) and an even greater role in figuring out how _systems_ of these genes, or their molecular mechanisms, work in both cancerous and healthy states in humans. But none of the early work on any of these fly genes actually stated that the goal of the work was to contribute to our understanding of cancer and its etiology. In fact, the connection at that point hadn't been made.

    So, it was because of a more flexible scientific agenda that prevailed in funding agencies at that time that we are now in possession of deep insights into cancer initiation and progression (of certain specific tumor types), thanks to the work of hundreds of people who sought to understand the basic biology of an "insignificant" invertebrate organism, the fruit fly.

    Posted by Karen Ho

  6. For all our complaints about funding, CS professors are paid pretty well (in comparison with professors in other departments). In the math dept. where I work, there seems to be little pressure to obtain funding (and so profs there are more free to work on whatever they like), but salaries are 1/2 to 1/3 of the CS dept. Which model would you prefer? 

    Posted by Anonymous

  7. Reminds me of a quote attributed to Einstein. ""If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it ?"  

    Posted by Selva


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