How to Make a Bad Idea Worse: Privatize It!

The science bloggysphere is all atwitter–in a bad way–about the proposal by two House Republicans to give out prizes instead of grants for research to the tune of $80 million per year. Steven Salzberg lays out all of the reasons why this is a dreadful idea–this is, perhaps, the key one (boldface mine):

This is a staggeringly bad idea. Why? Where do I begin? Well, first of all, biomedical research costs money–lots of money. Everyone I know in biomedical research, in which I’ve been working for 25 years, needs money before they make their discoveries. A prize at the end is nice, but you can’t do anything if you can’t pay for equipment, supplies, and (perhaps Congress will be surprised to learn this) people’s salaries.

Flawed though it may be, the current U.S. funding system works pretty well: scientists write up their ideas as proposals, NIH or NSF convenes panels of experts to review those proposals, and the best ones (more or less) get funded.

A prize, on the other hand, is awarded after the work gets done. If this is how we’re going to fund science, then very little good work will get done. Only rich people, or rich companies, will be able to compete for prizes in biomedical research. That’s how science worked in the 1800s and before, when the only way to do science was to find a wealthy patron, or to be wealthy yourself. Not surprisingly, things moved slowly back then.

But if you think this can’t get worse, you’re just suffering from a lack of imagination (boldface mine):

Here’s another little gem: the bill allows the NIH Director to outsource the administration of the prize competition to a private company, who can take 15% of the money for itself. Was a private contractor involved in writing this bill? I’m guessing some company is already making plans to siphon off precious research funds running these competitions–and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a hand in drafting the bill.

That’s right: $12 million to disburse the remaining $68 million. It certainly doesn’t cost NIH federal employees $12 million to organize five to six grant panels.

As I’ve mentioned before, this is what happens when people who hate government decide to design government programs. The incompetence is pretty staggering, though with Rep. Andy Harris as a co-sponsor, we shouldn’t be surprised: this is the guy who, while attempting to overturn D.C.’s marijuana legalization, almost accidentally legalized it himself. Really not the sharpest tool in the shed.

The only thing worse than spending $80 million on prizes is allowing a contractor to take a cut.

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2 Responses to How to Make a Bad Idea Worse: Privatize It!

  1. Crprod says:

    These guys really want China to be first in science. More accurately, they don’t mind if Anerican science spirals in so long as they can make lots of money out of it.

  2. sethkahn says:

    We all know you lazy scientists don’t do anything as long as the gummint just hands you the money.

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