Last week, I spent two days at a human microbiome meeting, the goal of which was to plan the direction (for now, anyway) of the Jumpstart/Human Microbiome Project, which has and will spend a total of $38 million. This got the Mad Biologist to thinking (always a dangerous thing, at best): why is so little science journalism dedicated to how science is funded, how key decisions are made in terms of funding priorities, and so forth?
Let me preface what follows with a disclaimer. I would hope that the majority of science-related coverage would deal with the output of the scientific research process, and the public policy implications of that research. Intelligent Designer knows that I spend enough bandwidth criticizing the traditional media for not explaining what various policies would actually do so citizens can make informed decisions (grant me my dreams of magic ponies…), as opposed covering to the political process. So the emphasis on explaining scientific results and their societal implications is good.
Nonetheless, how the decisions to fund science are made, which delimit who will conduct research, and what areas will researched, is important. To put this another way, the NIH, which has a $20 billion budget, is one of the least scrutinized agencies out there. Sure, sometimes a congressman gets a bug up his ass about some project or another, which results in news coverage. Likewise, the amount of the total NIH budget gets coverage. But how that money is allocated–and most allocation is done by administrative fiat, not Congressional edict, except with very broad brushstrokes–is almost never covered.
I can’t think of another federal agency with a similar sized budget that lacks routine, comprehensive public scrutiny. Think of all of the shit the National Endowment of the Arts catches with its $145 million budget.
The odd thing is that ‘scientist-bloggers’ do discuss funding issues. Not only does the Mad Biologist do so, but many other fellow ScienceBloglings do too. But there’s no way we can be impartial, which brings me back to the Human Microbiome Project (the part I deal with and have some small influence over is a quarter of the NEA budget, just to put things in perspective).
I know a lot about how that project really works. But I’m not going to spill the beans. Leaving aside concerns over career immolation*, I think the project is worthwhile and I would be concerned about harming the overall project–there’s no way I could possibly be objective. While having twits like Chris Matthews, David Gregory, or even Nedra Pickler covering this project (or any other) would be a fucking disaster (and to the extent, this or any other project improves public health, could cost lives–not that the prospect of dead people influenced Iraq War coverage…). But science journalists would be positioned to report about these issues reasonably well.
While I’ve relayed a personal story (albeit obliquely), the inability of scientists to be objective about funding is one reason why I think the R01 system is seriously flawed, if not irredeemibly so. But ‘successful’ research, who by definition receive R01 grants, aren’t about to seriously critique the process (Note: I’m not claiming ill intent, simply a lack of perspective by many academic scientists).
So why aren’t these issues covered more in depth? Because how science gets funded is important.
*I would like to think that if I thought the project was utter bullshit, at the very least, I wouldn’t participate in it. Of course, you never truly know what you’ll do until you’re there….