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News How Much Government Funding And Control Over Science Fields?

  1. Nov 2, 2005 #1
    [SOLVED] How Much Government Funding And Control Over Science Fields?

    How government control is over the all science fields in countries like Canada, USA, and Britain? How about in the East like South Korea and Japan? How much control and funding?

    Do you think government controlling the science field as well as funding it is more efficient than private research? In general most scientists I have read about do not care much for money and only want to research and learn. Still, do you think the competition of the free market in science field is needed for top quality science work or do scientists work the same with or without free market competition (same competition)? If you think government control and/or government funding is better and why do you think this?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 3, 2005 #2


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    I think the answers you get will depend strongly on the particular field of science that is being discussed. How would "free market" concepts apply to, say, cosmology or high-energy elementary particle physics?
  4. Nov 3, 2005 #3
    Yes, for example would the free market competition produce top quality scientists in physics such as cosmology and high-energy elementary particle phyisics? But not only physics, how about chemistry and biology?

    The reason I ask is because scientists seem not as much interested in money as they are in learning about physical reality. Democritus said himself that a life of poverty learning about this universe is far better than a life of riches and ignorance. Of course this could only be the opinion of Democritus, as Pythagorean had a slightly different view.

    But there is a difference between scienitific research (as any research) than other fields. As a doctor, lawyer, or teacher you are working for your clients where as in science research is usually done by an individual wanting to learn about the particular subject and less on client work and money. So to a certain extent money is not desired by any scientists, as I cannot imagine anyone wanting to enter science soley on money.

    Of course when the government has control over certian fields a lot more is limited, but government funded research based on the scientists desire and not the government's might work well as long as scientists themselves care very less about money. I guess the same thing can be said about historians as well. They may want to learn about the subject they are researching, maybe even get fame but I have not seen many if not any scientists loving their job because of the money ;).
  5. Nov 3, 2005 #4


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    There are pros and cons to both, but to really appreciate those, you need to understand how each mechanism works. I work in the biological/biomedical realm of scientific funding, so can't speak for fields like physics or engineering, which I think are more industry funded than government funded - their goals are a bit different in taking industry funding.

    In the US, the level of government control over biomedical research is to ensure taxpayer dollars are used for areas of research important to taxpayers. This means that each call for grant proposals, whether it be for NIH, NSF or USDA (those are the three agencies I have personal experience with, so can speak best about), includes a statement of funding priorities or focus areas for the coming year. When you apply for funds, you have an advantage if your work fits with those priority areas, but if there aren't enough people applying for funds in those areas, or their proposals are very weak, it doesn't exclude funding going to good science in other areas.

    Applications are all peer-reviewed, ranked, scored (or triaged...anything below about the 50th percentile doesn't get scored or discussed), discussed, budgets considered, often cut, and then funding is distributed from the top down...the best applications get funded, then the next best, and so on. When the funding runs out, everything below that cut-off is unfunded and you get the reviews to make changes to improve it for the next round.

    Right now, government funding of biomedical research is pretty low. Only about 10-12% of all applications are getting funded. That definitely inspires competition. In that regard, some lean years can help to sort the wheat from the chaff and retain good scientists while sending the worst off packing for other fields.

    On the other hand, there is currently a real danger that I know NIH is recognizing and some of their agencies are trying to find ways to address. We are at risk of losing our new investigators, the up-and-coming scientists just trying to get started who will sustain the future of the field. The more senior scientists are picking up the lion's share of funding because 1) they have a lot more experience writing proposals, so know how to word things to please reviewers; 2) have a longer track-record, so are lower risk in terms of knowing they will be productive with their use of the funds they are given; 3) have years of preliminary studies, prior work, prior funding to provide very strong evidence that they can do the work and that their hypotheses are valid, unlike new investigators who have only had a year or two to gather preliminary data on limited funds and are going to risk running out of start-up funds and not getting tenure if they can't procure external funding. There is a disconnect between what the universities are demanding for a new investigator to obtain tenure and what the funding agencies are spending.

    There is another consequence of reduced overall funding on new investigators, and that is that it puts a crunch on the university budgets. The universities get a cut of each investigator's grants to cover operating expenses. When there are a lot of funded investigators, there is some surplus in these expenses that can be given back to the departments to use for hiring new faculty or funding graduate student stipends, or any variety of uses as the department deems appropriate. When those funds get cut back, departments start aging and becoming top-heavy because the funds aren't there to open new positions and hire new faculty. Typically, when a senior investigator retires, a new position is opened and a new investigator brought in, so there is always a hierarchy of both very experienced and less experienced investigators in a department...you have those who have the experience to help the new people, and the new people to bring an infusion of new ideas. When you can't hire more junior faculty, departments stagnate and shrink in size, the senior faculty with the most productive labs are dragged back into covering the increasing teaching burden, and there's nobody learning the ropes to replace them when they retire. So, from this angle, the competition is detrimental.

    Another aspect of science funding that is entirely political is the pork barrel funding. This is the funding I have a real problem with, but unfortunately, the rest of our funding lies in keeping Congress happy so they remain generous (as much as possible). This is where overall research dollars look really high, but actual competitive funding is low. For example, a representative from Iowa (just a hypothetical example) might write into an appropriations bill a certain amount of research dollars to go to their land grant university to fund corn research. This is non-competitive funding, and the institution can distribute it any way they like. It would be nice if it got used to fund some pilot studies, or new investigators, or some high risk projects that could really make advances if they work, but too often they get used as bridge funding for investigators that aren't competitive enough to get competitive funding. The problem here is that this drains research dollars from competitive investigators and funnels it to non-competitive investigators. Unfortunately, the politics of this mechanism of funding are more complex than just keeping Congress happy, but I think it's important to recognize that it's not enough to just demand increases in science funding, but to demand increases in competitive science funding.

    As for private sector funding in the biomedical sciences, more investigators are turning to this venue as government funding gets cut. Though, while this helps direct more research toward translational studies to get products out to market, it doesn't fund the basic science...the stuff we need to learn to develop advances for the future. The other risk is that the work becomes proprietary when it is privately funded, so it cannot be published and used to advance knowledge in the field as it would if it was government funded. It shifts the focus of investigators and university administration from freely sharing their discoveries to patenting and trying to profit from licensing agreements. There is also risk of bias when you're being funded by someone with an interest in a specific outcome; anything that is published based on industry funding must be accompanied by a conflict of interest statement indicating there could be a conflict of interest, either real or perceived, based on the source of funding.

    So, from both sides of funding, there are pros and cons and a lot of messy politics. Keeping a balance of both sources of funding, in my opinion, is the best way to continue fostering the most competitive research. This balances consumer/taxpayer needs with both consumer-driven research and basic science research, both of which are needed. The two mechanisms also provide back-up for one another. A few years ago, goverment funding of science was still good, but several large pharmaceutical companies were in a slump and cutting contracts outsourcing studies to university labs. Now competitive government funding is down, but there are some growing mid-sized pharmaceutical companies with growing interest in investing in outsourcing some research to university labs because they aren't set up to do it themselves yet.
  6. Nov 3, 2005 #5


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    On the other hand, there are plenty of 'celebrity' scientists who are more than happy to accept multi-million dollar offers from presitigious institutions, and they will engage in bidding wars.

    The university I attended was wooing a couple of Nobel prize winners with multi-million dollars salaries and promises for significant R&D funding. That fell through when some big federal dollars failed to materialize, and the scientists accept generous offers elsewhere.

    Aside from the scientists motivation, the government funds basic research in areas where private industry doesn't show any interest. Sometimes private industry is more interested in stuffing profits in the hands of the management, than it is in investing in the future - this I have seen in certain industries - and that is why we have some problems we have now (sorry can't elaborate due to sensitivity of matters).

    On the other hand, the government funds research in the government labs and in private industry related to defense (military) technology, which is tightly controlled by the governemnt for obvious reasons.
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