Mike the Mad Biologist

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….

Comments

  1. #1 Christie
    January 21, 2009

    I think the reason so little journalism is done about it is that most science journalists are also scientists, at least in part – and those that aren’t probably aren’t qualified to cover such a topic. And as you pointed out, it’s hard not to be biased about funding. Besides, every scientist wishes they could forget about needing funding… it’s a huge pain in the arse that we have to deal with, and the last thing we want to think about when we don’t have to.

  2. #2 David Lee
    January 21, 2009

    Well, I might qualify as a science journalist by now with over a year producing science stories for video.

    I’d say that one problem for a video story about funding is the lack of interesting visuals. Another is that stories that involve numbers often scare off journalists. There are bigger budget stories out there and the media doesn’t cover those very well either. To actually cover your story well mean you need access. If you burn your access by taking a stand (which you ought do) then fewer people will talk to next time. And overall, the majority of Americans worry about other things thank funding for minor science projects. Look at the cost of the ISS or manned spaced projects.

    So I don’t think coverage is going to up unless there are more fistfights at press conferences.

    More ranting and fistfights would help;-)

  3. #3 David Dobbs
    January 21, 2009

    It’s difficult to sell such funding stories to general-interest mainstream outlets. Even big-picture funding stories are hard to place, and the subtler ones about how one project gets funded and another doesn’t seem even more “inside baseball” to most press outlets.

    This isn’t to say the right angle can’t sell. But it explains why you don’t see as many stories about funding as you do, say, fMRI studies …

  4. #4 Jeremy
    January 22, 2009

    Just two reasons. One, science journalists may not fully understand the funding process themselves. Two, the gatekeepers on mainstream media judge that nobody else — readers, viewers, listeners — is interested either, so there is no incentive for journalists to learn.

    I know of no better coverage than that by Daniel S. Greenberg and Dr Grant Swinger.

  5. #5 Kjerstin
    January 22, 2009

    Also, you never see a press release from Science or Nature or BMJ about science funding. And, after all, that’s where most science coverage originates.

  6. #6 Chris
    January 22, 2009

    I can’t think of another federal agency with a similar sized budget that lacks routine, comprehensive public scrutiny.

    Be careful what you wish for. Remember Palin’s anti-fruit fly comments? Or McCain’s mocking of ursine sequencing projects? Lots of science is easy for the uninformed to mock, and I fear that’s what would happen

  7. #7 Bertram Cabot, Jr.
    January 25, 2009

    Funding?

    Three words.

    Military. Industial. Complex.