Accountability and the Research Enterprise

The Republican leadership has recently turned its attention to “wasteful” research sponsored by NSF (see YouCut for details.) In a youtube video, Representative Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) calls for Americans to search the NSF database and report “wasteful” grants and cites two projects as examples of such waste, a $750,000 grant “to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contribution of soccer players,” and a $1.2 million grant “to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game and movie industries.”

The call for scrutiny of NSF funded research and the focus on this two projects have been widely mentioned in the Web (see US public asked to play judge and jury for science funding in the New Scientist, Citizens Against Peer Review in Discover Magazine, How some politicians stumble on science in USA Today, or Republicans Call for Public Scrutiny of NSF grants in As you might notice, one of the “wasteful” projects concerns a study published by my lab. Stephanie Pappas (Scientists: Call for Citizen Review of Funding Is Misleading ) of did a wonderful job of describing some of my words of caution concerning the description provided by Representative Smith, but I would nonetheless like to elaborate on some of them in here.

Accountability: I am a strong believer in accountability. I strongly believe that scientists must balance their intellectual curiosity with the costs to society of embarking on a given research direction, and that all federally funded scientists must take as their responsibility the job of educating the public on the rational for their work.

As a child I loved both science popularization books and science popularization shows. The voices of Carl Sagan and David Attenborough still send shivers through my spine at the recollection of all the wonderful knowledge they shared. While I, and most of my peers, cannot duplicate the excellence with which Sagan and Attenborough shared scientific discoveries with the public, we must try to share both the excitement about what we are doing and the impact of our discoveries.

Subtleties of research: As many other human activities, conducting scientific research and training new generations of scientists has its peculiarities. This means that if one wants to judge the value of the activities of a scientist, one needs to learn a little about those peculiarities, otherwise one could easily draw conclusions that are off target.

One peculiarity of science is that many times one cannot study directly the problem that really interests us and must instead study other simpler or more accessible questions. For example, even though one may be only interest in understanding and curing diseases in humans, one may have to study similar diseases in mice, just because it is easier (and more humane) to experiment on mice than on humans. In the same way, while my lab is interested in understand how people work in teams, and what are the characteristics of teams that are the most productive and innovative in performing R&D activities, it is actually very difficult to continuously follow a large number of research teams over an extended period of time. However, if one can identify contexts in which team work is on display for all to see, maybe one can draw lessons that may apply to many different teams in many different contexts.