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December 02, 2006


I have four suggestions not related to actual legislation.

1) a Caucus of working Scientists who review the political records of those running for Congress and the Presidency to evaluate whether they understand certain science relationships on which they might be called to legislate. Some of these are economic, others are research science, others are development of technology from science advances, and in addition, Science Education. The results of their inquiry ought to be published, including refusal to participate in reviews.

2) same treatment of all who announce for President, with the final review to be published at least 6 weeks before the Iowa caucus.

3) Elect more Scientists or perhaps Science Teachers to office. I think it is less than 1% now adding together State Legislatures plus Congress.

4) Organize working Scientists into a Public Interest Lobby. In the process, teach scientists (or at least some of them) to be public advocates, appear on TV, be interviewed by the press -- and of course directly lobby congress. They need an inside-outside strategy, one which ties public education to the inside lobby game. It should not be a lobby that deals in campaign contributions. But it could do reporting on experience on which something like the Dirty Dozen environmental (anti) awards are based. It should also have a student chapter -- both advanced High School Students and College Science Majors, and conduct workshops around the country that deal with the links between political decision making and the Future of Science. Perhaps professional societies could be approached to help raise funds for this -- but keep the whole thing on a non-partisian and non-profit basis.

I wouldn't call you a pessimist EP

the word utopian comes to mind, but I wouldn't actually use that one either

what we really need is a magic elixir to protect us from ever again electing a luddite asshat idiot presnit

if we could invent the magic elixir and put it in the world's water supply, there might be hope for mankind

warfare has been one of the main driving forces of science and industry for the past 500 years

most of the industrial Machine Tools (milling machines, lathes, drill presses, etc) we use today were invented to manufacture fire arms

a lot of the wonderful medical technology we have is related to war fare thru the development of RADAR, nuclear science (The Manhatten Project), etc

most of the world's space programs rely on the technological advancements of hitler's "Vengence Weapons" program

and the real irony is that the more technologically advanced societies don't always win

Rome was destroyed by people who were much less technologically advanced than the Romans, just as America is being defeated by a bunch of Muslim luddites

ain't life grand ???

December 1st. Nice title. I'll see you when I can explain what is going to happen and not get banned.


I think one problem is that the public sees science as an elite special interest that gets a ton of money (that they should get back from the taxes they paid, that should go to their hometown, etc...). The best way to prevent politics from disrupting science would be if there was wide public support, but this is a challenge.

Fortunately, I think the public at the moment recognises the dishonest rhetorical style of the Republicans (they need just turn on a network other than Fox to learn how they're being mislead), I'd even say the Republican's lost the election because the public didn't believe what they were saying any more. So, I'd say it's a good moment to highlight how science has been hobbled by the former Republican majority (this might be tricky as there have been some very staunch Republican supporters of science despite the excesses), prepare several very good stories to be repeated many times (like those famous Republican talking points that they all receive and repeat each week).

My only other quck thought is that elections are meant to change how DC works, we went from several years of great increases at the NIH to several lean years.

How does it go?

"I feel you pain, emptypockets"

but you can't expect funding on anything to remain constant in a political atmosphere where everyone (including the public) is fighting to get to the money trough.

I think this is a great idea that actually has a chance of working. Even with some compromises, it's worth trying. The problem is not that we elect asshat politicians, because that's a problem we can't solve. We *can* make it harder for any minority to arbitrarily stick its ass hat in the works, and I think there is a majority constituency for science-based policy. Good one!

Sara, thanks for that, I really appreciate your bringing your expertise to bear on these science posts -- just the fact that you're interested in thinking about the topic makes me think the issue will be able to move out of the shadows where things like NIH funding usually reside.

I should mention that in terms of organizing pro-science advocates to exert political pressure, there is Scientists and Engineers for America and Declan Butler just passed on to me a link to The Center for Inquiry that I wasn't familiar with but that seems to share the goals. SEforA is a young group that, I think, is still getting their footing as to how to influence policy. I think the model you outline would work very well.

But I'd also mention that the American Society for Cell Biology has become extremely active in public policy, still leagues below what most lobbying groups would do but much much more than the average scientific society. It has been interesting to watch -- they are having to do double-duty, both to pull politicians towards science as well as pulling their own members (who are all scientists) towards politics. They sponsor Capitol Hill visits for graduate students, I think they were very active on the hill in the weeks leading up to the stem cell vote earlier this year, and their newsletter that all members receive always includes brief updates on science funding legislation, an evolution watch to show where creationism battles are being fought, things like that. They are completely non-partisan (in fact they gave their public service award last year to Arlen Specter).

Right now, there seem to be several groups trying to pick up the mantle of public science advocate, which is great. I don't know if it would be better to consolidate it to a single group, or if more voices are better even at the risk of repeating each other's efforts or appearing fragmented.

What these groups' goals are and how they plan to get there, I'm not sure -- I think they all plan to be fairly fleet-footed and respond to opportunities as they arise, in the interest of increased research opportunity. What I'm suggesting here are the elements of a policy proposal that I hope all these groups could get behind.

freepatriot, in fact I did a little paper for a statistics course once where I tried to test the hypothesis that science funding is driven by political hositility towards other nations. I took the test case of NASA funding, asking whether changes in NASA funding were explained better by changes in Cold War tensions (like yearly bomb tests) or by measures of general public interest in science (like number of engineering PhDs awarded). The conclusion -- and I should say, this was just a ham-handed effort by a student in an intro stats course -- was that funding levels were best explained by general interest in science but that political tensions acted as a magnifier of that, needed to explain the extreme highs and lows. Certainly in the space race getting to the Moon was a fairly pointless adventure except that we developed so much incredible technology to achieve the goal (including a lot of advances in computers and miniaturization). I think this angle -- that on topics like stem cells for example the question is not whether we get those cures or not, the question is whether we get them first or whether Korea or Singapore does and we are obligated to import all our new medicines from abroad -- is an interesting way to promote US science that hasn't been talked about enough.

kim, this has been very frustrating for me personally to so frequently hear people confuse scientists with doctors and basic medical research with clinical trials and research into new medical treatments. I think this is a basic hole in the public understanding of science, and I think where we fall through the hole is when the public gets skeptical of scientists wanting funds, saying "well those guys are all doctors driving BMWs that some pharmaceutical company bought them anyway." They don't get that it is the MDs who drive the ferraris and make a few hundred thousand per year (sometimes) get funded by drug companies, and it's scientists who drive old volkswagens and make eighty-thousand a year and are funded on the public dollar. I don't think basic scientists are helping ourselves by always conflating our research with efforts to cure disease -- but the difference between researching a disease treatment and researching a disease cause is, although ENORMOUS, superficially the kind of a nuance that I'm not sure fits well into soundbites.

I am very encouraged though by the number of Americans who seem to be understanding that stem cell research, evolution teaching, global warming are all mainstream science and we should be FOR that research; and that Republicans have offered failed policy on each of these fronts, like so many of their other failed policies, that should be rejected. I think it's a great time right now to advance the cause of science, both in terms of public investment but also in terms of public interest and excitement in the discoveries themselves.

p.s. link to ASCB public policy page.

I disagree with you rather strongly - I think boom/bust funding can actually be a good thing for science and for the country. During the boom phase, a lot of new blood is drawn into the scientific pool, bolder ideas can be funded, and new equipment and directions can be drawn.

And then there's the bust - so? Yes, some deserving grants don't get funded, but that happens in the best of times. Bold ideas that have proven themselves continue to be funded. New blood that isn't the best of the best is forced into industry or teaching - thus, spreading scientific knowledge and experience outside of the college/academia.

Now, can these benefits be gained without the human cost of the (essentially) business-like cycle?

"people confuse scientists with doctors and basic medical research with clinical trials and research into new medical treatments"

I actually wasn't thinking of the medical applications and profits, more just how a person would read the paper and see unusually large NIH budget increases year after year, see all this money go to San Francisco and Boston, and then have to be lectured about embryos and evolution. I've met non-scientists while traveling to scientific meetings and heard this sort of sentiment, also heard lots of resentment about the sorts of well off places which invariably get government funding for research. "Curing disease" also does generate good feelings while more esoteric science creates skepticism (sexuality studies invariably get used politically for instance, and much of non-medical research is just way too foreign to the public to appreciate).

I agree that the commercialization of biomedical research doesn't help, when hyped companies selling no products take big money from the public and then more often than not go out of business - there's certainly a dysfunctional model there that might create some resentment, even when the rational is explained.

riptide, I agree that those kinds of expansion-contraction cycles are healthy. But when it's a real boom-bust, what happnes is big projects get initiated and never finished. We sunk $12 billion into a hole in the ground under Waxahachie, Texas that was supposed to become one of the most powerful particle accelerators on the planet. Today it's used as storage space for a document archiving company. It was a total waste of public investment.

That's an extreme example, but at a smaller scale there are individual research projects in thousands of labs around the country that get initiated during the boom times and then shoved in the back of the freezer when the bust comes too suddenly. What I would like to see is, during contraction times, funding ramped down more responsibly so that while fewer new project may be started, at least on-going projects can be closed out and the work published.

It still has the benefits you are concerned about, but without the great loss of public investment.

Emptypockets, thanks for your comments on my general outline of how a lobby might properly be structured.

I believe the general state of jealousy among scientists and labs that get funded, and those who don't can be resolved by Congress if they are willing to take up a very controversial issue. Let me see if I can lay it out.

As things stand now, we Socialize Risk, and Privatize Opportunity. We tend to put on the public tab the basic research and some early development costs for applications, then we release the basic knowledge, sometimes with virtually no royality payment to private industry to exploit as applications. Some part of this is the responsibility of institutions, such as the rules Universities apply to basic science products developed in their own labs, but much of it is due to the rules US Government agencies apply to the output from things they fund. As a general position, what congress needs to do is revise these rules so that the "socialized risk" that pays off in useful applications has to, over time, recapture some of the basic science and early development costs -- and essentially socialize some of the profits.

Some examples. Back in the mid 1980's, after NIH had worked out that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus, the first mode of attack was to take off the shelf about 250 drugs that had been developed under Nixon's War on Cancer in the 1970's when there was a live hypothesis that many or most cancers were caused by virus -- and screen them for effectiveness against the HIV virus. In this process, they quickly discovered that AZT had some effect against HIV on the bench. In fact, they stopped the study early because of this outcome, and began to deliver the small custom made product to Research Physicians for a large scale trial. Now NIH and the University labs that owned the patents on AZT (In this case it was Vanderbilt) do not manufacture pills. So NIH basically gave the patent to Burroughs -- and Burroughs worked out how to mass produce, and then they turned around and priced the product at about 12 thousand per year to the customer. They wanted to recover their manufacturing development costs within 12 months, after having received the formula essentially for free. You perhaps remember the huge protests against this pricing -- but this is illustrative of the system -- the development costs were socialized in the Vanderbilt grants from the Nixon Era, the product seemed to be worthless -- but suddenly it became a huge profit center for the company to whom it was handed off at virtually no cost.

What, in my opinion should have happened is that the rules for dealing with the costs of Burroughs mass producing the product, and testing it and bringing it into the market should be treated as strictly costs. They indeed should be able to recapture these costs, but perhaps not in 12 months -- but once strict accounting is applied to costs, then a significant Royality ought to kick in, paid to NIH, and put into a trust that can be used for further basic research. This does not preclude profit for the private industry -- but it should accurately reflect the value of what was handed off to them when they assumed the patent rights and the actual value of what they contributed. One would assume that Burroughs already knew how to manufacture pills. In other words, socialize the risk -- fine, but then recapture some of those costs through much stricter application of royalities based on sales. (and perhaps be a little humanistic about the cost of the product to the Universe of Humans who can benefit from it.)

Now there are thousands of other examples of the same basic pattern. Take GPS locator systems. These are the product of major league basic research grants from DARPA during the 1970's mostly -- GPS at root was a very secret system for targeting ICBM Missiles. Later it was adapted for many other military uses, and until the end of the Cold War, it was highly classified. Then suddenly DOD declassified, and quite literally handed the science off to the Japanese for product development. There is essentially no royality payment. But if you want to find your Ice Fishing House during the Ice Fishing Season on one of our fine Minnesota lakes, you now use GPS. You take a reading when you put out your fishing house, and then to find it again while running from the shore on your snowmobile, you depend on your GPS readings. Same for finding your car in a huge parking lot, same for avoiding getting lost in the woods during deer season. Think of all the other GPS applications that have been developed -- "On Star" for instance, in-car electronic maps that give voice directions, to say nothing of the Google applications. All this is about Risk that was socialized within the Military Budget -- and then simply given away. Why shouldn't some sort of Science Trust collect Royalities that could then be re-invested in more basic science?

Most Scientists think little beyond their own grants, and those in the fields where they work -- they need to learn to think more broadly. They need much more critical understanding of the financial systems within which they work, and learn to lobby for improvements that in the end benefit a whole range of sciences. Congress of course is equally deliquent, tending to think of grants as pork brought home to the state or district, and not in broader national terms. Just think how many skilled jobs might have been produced if DARPA had not just handed off GPS to the Japanese? I would contend it is only a Science led lobby reinforced with a significant public understanding of the issue that could in the end force Congress to examine this, and do what it can do best -- change the rules.

One thing Ike Skelton, the new head of House Armed Services Committee should do is investigate all the basic Science DOD under Rumsfeld has handed off to be privatized. My guess is that Republicans have pretty much cleaned out the closet of what was on the shelf, and handed off to their best buddy campaign donors over the past six years. And sometimes the hand off works to the detriment of Americans, look at the following example:

Back in the 70's DARPA funded basic science and development work on vehicles that could be powered by wind and solar collectors free from dependence on petrochemical fuels. The R&D called for a technology that could power a full sized car for 750 miles without a change or re-charge of batteries -- in this instance they used a modified Ford Fairlane -- and a collector that could operate farm machinery such as tractors and combines. By the early 1980's they were well on the way to success, and I think they did it, because I observed the so called "dunebuggies" used in the 1991 war in the Gulf were so powered. Dan Rather actually reported on them during that war or just afterwards. Then the whole story disappeared from the news. My own guess is that Oil interests and Auto interests worked to submerge the technology, rather than allow the public to get interested and support development for civilian applications. Again, a lobby of scientists could deploy to advocate development in the public interest -- just imagine the environmental implications of such development, let alone the Oil Independence side of it. There was a great deal of basic physics research involved in developing totally new types of batteries, all paid for by American Taxpayers through the DOD budget. But the whole project just disappeared from public view. Again -- only a decent science and technology lobby that can stand somewhat independent of other vested interests can avoid this pattern and work science in the public interest.

So yes -- investigations, the right questions, and decent independent journalism that explains the implications of public policy to the interested public. Make Congress respond to a very different set of values.

Sara, I think this gets to the heart of whether basic research should be publicly funded at all.

Logistically, I'm afraid that the mechanism you suggest opens a slew of patent-law issues that we're not equipped to deal with. The current patent policy that allows one to patent genes, and (perhaps?) cell lines, is a mess. I think it would also cripple our ability to present unpublished work at meetings, and would delay how quickly one would publish, as one waits to file patents on all the new reagents and techniques generated in every paper. And since a typical paper generates 5 to 20 new reagents (and now whole-genome studies regularly identify hundreds of new gene activities in a single experiment) I'm afraid this would just not be practicable -- it would be a bonanza for patent lawyers and a huge bureaucracy for scientists.

Philosophically, academic scientists like to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves for being above all that patent-royalty-licensing stuff that they do over in industry. So there is a real culture change that would have to happen. I'm afraid that culture change would also validate some public hesitancy to invest in basic research -- "These guys are using tax money and then getting rich off the patents!" The mechanism you suggest where the royalties go back to a big pool at NIH instead of to the individual inventor may fix some of that -- currently most universities split patent royalties 50-50 between the university and the whoever did the research.

Both logistically and philosophically, there is the question of how far to take it -- the ability to transfer DNA into bacteria, should that be free? the identification of the double-stranded nature of DNA, can you get a patent on that? Logistically, I think it would become a mess to try to track down every time someone in industry used a technique or idea developed by academics and to charge them for it. Philosophically, the idea of academic science is that discoveries should be open-access, open-source, for the public good.

Importantly, you allude to the fact that there are intermediate states between the public domain and the patent office. For research from DoD and DARPA, you mention there are classified research results -- that is a whole separate way of regulating who has access to the information. For academic research, there are occasionally unique reagents we generate (at least in biology) like a mouse line or a very rare mutant, that are difficult to replicate independently and so essentially the lab that generates it becomes the one world supplier of that tool. But those are the unusual cases -- most of what we do is public (and indeed the trend is towards putting more data into the public domain more rapidly) and, once you figure out how to do it, can be cheaply and quickly replicated anywhere.

I think two small changes in the patenting process may go part of the way to what you suggest -- and I should say up front I really know very little about the patent licensing process. I think right now the technology transfer offices at most universities negotiate a flat licensing fee when they make a deal with a pharmaceutical company, say. As you point out, the drug companies may then price the drug so as to recoup that fee quickly and then roll in profits. So the first change would be to only negotiate patent licenses as a percentage of profits -- I don't know why (or if?) this is already done. Second, right now, as I said, NIH provides research funding but then allows patents to be granted to the university and the researcher without any royalties returned to NIH. I've never understood this policy. It's great for whoever did the work to get a bonus from it, and in a sense it substitutes for NIH funding because the university usually often does use that income to expand their research program. But I think there is a very strong case to be made that the patent royalties should at least be split 50-25-25 between NIH, the university and the researcher, or some other ratio.

The stumbling-block here is that (1) universities still pay the full cost of securing the patent, and may be disinclined to do that -- so one net result may be that less discoveries get patented, for better or for worse; and (2) it provides further incentive for researchers to publish just the minimum and then launch or collaborate with a company to do the final steps that would lead to the patentable discovery, and thus retain full patent rights plus likely some bonus. (or just shift funding around so the final discovery is not made on NIH's dime but on private or internal funding sources.) It gets complicated.

In a nutshell:

The "pure academic" solution is that the public invests heavily in research and the fruits of that research are all in the public domain for any entrepreneur to exploit equally.

The "pure industry" solution is that basic research discoveries are licensed or directly marketed, and the royalties from those sales are invested back into research and the need for public investment is minimized.

Which gets me back to where I started -- I think these questions get to the heart of whether we should have publicly funded science at all!

I don't think either of us is being an extremist but my preference lies closer to the pure academic solution, with its openness and ability to do lots of basic work with no immediate marketable application, while I think the model you describe has more elements of the industrial solution. Am I misrepresenting that?

Actually I am trying to approach a reform of my equation, Socialized Risk, Privatized Profit Opportunities. What I think is the key is a means of essentially "taxing" the profit, after it has reached a take off point -- and re-investing it back into science at the risk point -- that is the point where outcomes are less predictable or even unknowns.

It has been Republican Ideology for the past couple of decades to assume that Industry would do basic science -- and this has been demonstrated to be a false assumption. With any new notion, Industry looks at the profit center, and focuses research on getting to that point as fast as possible. That is just the business decision made in an unregulated environment. The National Science Foundation has several surveys that demonstrate this very clearly. What's necessary in my mind is just a regular system of putting back into a pool of funds available for basic research a relatively small part of the Private Opportunity Profits that are generated by the complex process that ultimately arrived at an application that is a profit center. In other words I want to socialize some of the profits, and then deed them to a trust fund that distributes them in a fairly transparent manner for Basic Research in all scientific fields. In the language Government types use, there has to be a system for recapturing costs from profitable applications.

There are all sorts of corruptions in the current system that need addressing. For instance in recent years it has become common for Industry to front the costs of testing for safety and effect for new Pharm products that need FDA approval before marketing. This has led to things like the Vioxx mess -- essentially an industry operated testing process not really designed to study safety properly. The argument was made that Speed in bringing something to market was a high value, FDA did not have funding for true independent testing, thus Industry should have an avenue for financing this. We see the corruption that has resulted. What I would contend that the cost and supervision of testing a new product should be on the risk side -- it is in fact more a part of the basic research arena than the manufacture, marketing and distribution for profit side -- so if applications paid into a trust, some part of that pot of money could be used for true independent testing -- essentially putting testing back on the risk side, and socializing the cost of what doing it properly entails.

``but it should accurately reflect the value of what was handed off to them when they assumed the patent rights and the actual value of what they contributed.''

The public (effectively NIH) should own the patents derived from publically funded research, okay? NIH or some other body could then license the production of the drug or medical device to generic producers. If necessary the R&D to convert to a usable product should be paid for by the NIH (or similar body) under a contract system. Needless to say, given the political influence of Big Pharma, this, or anything like it, such as the schemes proposed by Sara or EP ain't gonna happen. But that's capitalism US style. Get used to it or be prepared to try to destroy it. The system will only change if, as in the great depression, the ruling class is sufficiently frightened of popular anger to be prepared to moderate their avarice and lust for power.

Emptypockets, what do you think of getting some scientists to write blatantly partisan blogs like the economists do (Mankiew, Reich, Delong, etc...)?

There's a sense that science is apolitical (and in fact this thread argues for "depoliticizing" science) but maybe this is mistaken if the Republicans are devotedly pro-life and and anti-evolution - you might get howls of protest and some good voting to prove that argument wrong.

I'd suggest that science tends toward apolitical because it is conflicted, dependent upon money from DC.

It's also assumed that science is politically monolithic in a way that economics is not, I wonder if this is a good idea to perpetuate? As you've noted, basic research and pharma/biotech might have very different political beliefs that would be served by some outspoken scientist-bloggers.

I saw a great article in the Financial Times discussing how there is a big difference between the scientific culture and business -- that scientists hold finding the true facts supreme while businesses are devoted to preserving the institution (ie the truth is secondary, from my biased scientific perspective). I thought this was a great observation.

Here's a good one about the difference between economics and science (physics):


I'd add one more piece to the legislation: Improve independence of government employees and science advisory committee members.

For government employees, they need to be able to let Congress and the public know what their research says about the effects of climate change, pesticide use, etc., even when the administration doesn't like what they have to say. This administration is muzzling scientists and coaching them about what to say to the media, but the scientists should have the independence to speak their minds (and not lose their jobs).

When it comes to advisory committee members, there's been a growing problem of conflicts of interest -- for instance, doctors and scientists who get money from drug manufacturers serving on the advisory committees that have to examine those manufacturers' drugs. Then there's also the new low in the way the Bush administration selects new advisory committee members: they ask candidates which politicians they donated to, and reject applicants who support abortion rights. (Michael Specter's 3/13/06 New Yorker article "Political Science" has the
gory details on this.)

Also, this post puts me in mind of another piece of potential legislation: "Sarbanes-Oxley for Science," which David Michaels of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy proposes. This is more directed at corporate misuse of science (e.g., Merck concealing the results of showing health risks associated with Vioxx), but that's also an important consideration, and is relevant to the agencies that have to decide whether to approve new pharmaceuticals, pesticides, etc.

SOX for Science would require each company to designate a person responsible for reporting accurately and completely the results of all the studies the company undertakes and justifying any designations of confidentiality, which tend to be abused. It would also level the playing field between publicly funded science, in which scientists are required to make their raw data available, and privately funded science, in which there's no such requirement.

Where is emptypockets? Quite perfidious behavior I'll say.

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