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December 29, 2006

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it's also a way to fight over political and cultural issues, a la Missouri and the stem cell initiative in 2006. That's not necessarily a good thing. One more referendum and MO may lose any desirability as a 'stable' state where investment in intellectual or dollar terms pays off.

Great post.

I'm inclined to wonder why it's that important for research to be distributed across the country. More than one or two locations, yes, because groupthink within a local research culture seems very possible, and having four or five separate islands of research seems like a good corrective to that. But, for instance, why any of those islands need to be in red states isn't totally obvious to me, a blue-state partisan.

On one hand, they do help blue out those red states a little. More importantly, a few research centers in Republican territory would help insulate the research community from GOP hostility. In the same way that the defense industry seems to have deliberately dispersed itself for maximum political effect, the research community could deliberately make sure it exists in GOP territory too, so that the GOP wouldn't be so inclined to cut the funding of its own constituents. If this dispersal helped insulate research funding from constantly shifting political winds, that would be a really important result.

For instance, my impression is that Talent had to essentially go neutral on stem cells in large part because Washington University wanted the money. No Wash U in St Louis, and you get a Missouri GOP much more aggressive about stem cells.

Hard red territory would actually be a very very difficult place to build research communities (Mississippi? Oklahoma? Wyoming?), but there's plenty of Republican states that the researchers could build in. Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, and even Idaho are all red states that also have metro areas that could support research communities.

Sucks to have to be this political, and honestly I think the need is passing. The GOP has to keep the religious voters, so I'm sure they'll stick with certain of the social issues, but the anti-intellectual stuff (Darwin and stem cells) is costing them too much too quickly for them to keep it up. It looks from the cheap seats like NIH funding ought to be safer and less political going forward anyway.

The Missouri amendment was cited favorably by absurdist-bordering-on-surreal op-ed in the LA Times by someone from the Cato Institute arguing that states should not fund stem cell research it but should legally protect it to attract private investment (which is how it works in MO).

The "reasoning" is that taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for things they don't unanimously approve of, which is a nice idea -- there would be no George Bush presidency, let alone an Iraq War -- albeit sporadically applied.

(Just to pick at a pet peeve, the op-ed's "reasoning" also said that private groups are best suited to fund research because California's $3 billion stem cell initiative has been hung up in court and progress has come from private groups that loaned the state $14 million. I think looking at the number of dollars in that sentence is enough to debunk the argument.)

What Missouri did was good, and more states should do it -- it will also attract more investment in the state -- but one needs to be alert to the amount of money involved. Jim Stowers bankrolled the MO Amendment for the benefit of his Stowers Institute, which he built as a $300 million facility and has invested about $60 million in it since 2000. The NJ initiative will be between $270 and $500 million. The California initiative is $3,000 million. Protecting private investment is a good start, but you need a philanthropic billionaire and even then it is difficult to reach the levels possible with public funds.

What did you mean by "one more referendum..."? Do you think the pro-research amendment is likely to be undone?

texasdem, you answer your own question about as well as I could -- I think you're right on. The benefits of distributing research across the country are basically: 1. teaching, 2. political representation, 3. equality. In short -- teaching, most researchers are at universities and the quality of the research is somehow related to the quality of the teaching of the undergrads who will go on to live there (and to teach in public schools there); political representation, as you said, it helps to have as many Congresspeople as possible have a local interest in being pro-research, and that means not sticking it all in CA & MA; equality, this one's more obscure but it goes something like, everyone's paying for it and everyone should get something back (even the red states). It's hard to draw the line where the benefits of science stop diffusing, so this one is certainly arguable.

I think you're right also that the cycle is changing in terms of political hostility toward science -- but I think that wheel will turn again, and now (as we have the mainstream behind us) is the time to establish the institutes and practices that will protect us from another round of anti-intellectualism 5, 10, 20 years down the road -- we'll need them.

Do you think the pro-research amendment is likely to be undone?

Do we think opponents are finished? I don't.

The Latin word which gives the ablative form pluribus doesn't actually have a form plurum; plurimi (very many) might be better.

Brian, I had a feeling someone would call me on that, but didn't know how to make it right -- thank you.

The problem with states funding the research isn't the location of that research -- it will be done where the Doctors' want to live -- it's the cost. This is expensive research. Better funded at the Federal level than the state level for all sorts of reasons that I won't bore you with. But as between no funding from the Feds and state funding, better state funding.

Yhe way things are going, the critical research will be done in Europe. The research community in the US is looking at the back side of the moon.

I, too, have a problem with foisting so much off on the states.

On the other hand, the states may exercise better oversight of the funds than the feds. That wouldn't be too difficult and should result in less waste. Even more important, perhaps a substantial portion of the money won't be going to feather the nests of Republicans' friends.

knut wicksell: Scientists can't start an institute wherever they want to live any more than an English professor can start a university wherever he or she wants. You're right that the cost of research is high and needs public support, and as I said at the outset I don't think any state has the resources to replace its share of NIH funding entirely -- but as we go forward, one can wonder whether new growth will/can/should come primarily from states or federal. European research funding is waaaaayyyyy behind US funding -- as much as we may complain about the stagnation at NIH and meddling by Bush, the research community in the US is much more vibrant and well-funded than in Europe. (For a scientist, looking at the back side of the moon may represent the more sophisticated challenge -- you don't need much funding to look at the front.)

creeper: Oversight of research funding hasn't been a major problem, nor has feathering Republican nests. Again, as much as we complain about NIH, it still works exceedingly well by the standards of most government agencies. The main problems at NIH have been fuddy-duddiness -- a predilection to fund research that is already known will work, that directly translates into medical treatments, and that is well in line with mainstream expectations. This is fine for a business, but public funding should do what businesses will not -- fund high-risk, unexpected, novel science that will may lead to fundamental breakthroughs (or may flame out altogether). Those breakthroughs are the engine that drives scientific progress, and they are too risky and too removed from medical applications for the private sector to go after them.

Brian: my in-house Classics scholar recommends "plures"

Interesting post EP, maybe state funding will stimulate further pro-science sentiment following on the last election. I'll also take this opportunity to point out some absurd Administration creationist interference at the Grand Canyon:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2006/12/29/park-service-cant-give-o_n_37406.html

kim, I was hoping you'd weigh in. I meant to apologize to you (and others) for not keeping up my end of the conversation in this previous thread -- I'm always reading, but sometimes other obligations keep me from having time to reply.

The creationism foisted on the parks service has been an ongoing story for a couple of years, I'm not sure why it's resurfacing now? although it's always good to draw renewed attention to these things.

No problem at all EP, just being my typically annoying self. :)

Empty, I went for plurimi because there's more more there (my Ph.D is in Latin).

Brian, did you catch this morning's FoxTrot in the Sunday funnies?

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