The question can further be narrowed to ask when governments should fund scientific research.
People who are critical of government spending often find government funded scientific research projects they deem wasteful and publicize them as examples of government waste. Sometimes the discussions are just political theater but the conversation does raise interesting questions. What is the government’s responsibility when it comes to funding science? What criteria should we follow when determining what is worthwhile and what isn’t?
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has on multiple occasions published lists of projects he thought were wasteful but he also published an interesting list of 20 questions he thought should guide our decisions on which projects deserved government spending.
- Will this research advance science in a meaningful way?
- Will the findings advance medicine?
- Will it improve our national defense?
(You can find the full list here)
You can download his whole document here.
Science Magazine Responds
Analysis: Senator’s attack on ‘cheerleading’ study obscures government’s role in training scientists
Below is a link from Science magazine addressing the Senator Flake’s approach and assumptions.
“More importantly, perhaps, how NSF did spend the money illustrates an important point often lost in the sometimes highly partisan debates over government research spending: Most of those dollars go to educate the next generation of scientists. These students are trained in many disciplines and work on a wide array of projects—some of which might sound dubious to politicians. After graduation they use their knowledge to bolster the U.S. economy, improve public health, protect the nation from its enemies, and maintain U.S. global leadership in science.”
Planet Money Podcast: Shrimp Fight Club
These issues were discussed on a Planet Money Podcast which was adapted from another podcast Undiscovered.
Interesting podcast episode that delves into whether sugar should be regulated. In evaluating that claim, they delve into the difficulty of proving claims of about health and nutrition scientifically. What does good science look like in nutrition? How do you prove a causal relationship? Both relevant questions when we look at this issue.
“Some people argue that sugar should be regulated, like alcohol and tobacco, on the grounds that it’s addictive and toxic. How much sense does that make? We hear from a regulatory advocate, an evidence-based skeptic, a former FDA commissioner — and the organizers of Milktoberfest.”
“In 1838, Jesuit priests sold a group of 272 men, women, and children – slaves – to pay off Georgetown University’s debts. The slaves were sent from Maryland to Louisiana. In part one of this two part episode, we told the story of how the residents of a small town discovered where they’d come from. Now in part two, we ask what, if anything, Georgetown owes the descendants of those slaves.”
Parts One and Two linked below
“Think of all the movies and TV shows that have referenced Star Wars. Most of those scenes are pretty forgettable, except for a scene in the 1994 film Clerks, which set off a debate that’s still going on today. One of the characters notes that the second Death Star was still under construction when it got blown up. So there must have been independent contractors there trying to finish the job. Is it fair if they got killed too? Judge Matthew Sciarrino, Josh Gilliland of Legal Geeks and economist Zachary Feinstein discuss the value “good guys” should place on the lives of “bad guys.” ”
“We tend to think of medicine as a science, but for most of human history it has been scientific-ish at best. In the first episode of a three-part series, we look at the grotesque mistakes produced by centuries of trial-and-error, and ask whether the new era of evidence-based medicine is the solution.”
“How do so many ineffective and even dangerous drugs make it to market? One reason is that clinical trials are often run on “dream patients” who aren’t representative of a larger population. On the other hand, sometimes the only thing worse than being excluded from a drug trial is being included.”
“By some estimates, medical error is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. How can that be? And what’s to be done? Our third and final episode in this series offers some encouraging answers.”
“When people are dying and you can only save some, how do you choose? Maybe you save the youngest. Or the sickest. Maybe you even just put all the names in a hat and pick at random. Would your answer change if a sick person was standing right in front of you?
“In this episode, we follow New York Times reporter Sheri Fink as she searches for the answer. In a warzone, a hurricane, a church basement, and an earthquake, the question remains the same. What happens, what should happen, when humans are forced to play god?”
This is a great podcast that gets into some of the issues and challenges with constructing knowledge in the human sciences. Though we differentiate between the human and natural sciences, both use similar processes to construct experiments and rely on similar reasoning processes to construct knowledge. One key idea in both types of science is the idea that experiments can be reproduced and results can be replicated in order to validate a study’s findings. What happens when you can’t reproduce a prior finding? Were the original results fraudulent? Poorly constructed experiments? Was the new experiment faulty? The answer to these questions is complicated but this podcast delves into some of those issues.
“Lots of psychology studies fail to produce the same results when they are repeated. How do scientists know what’s true?”