A once-fantastic bill has seen its ambitions shrink
As a practicing scientist, I always find complaints about true innovation being unfundable in the current system dramatically overstated. As Matt alludes to, we all know that while proposals need to be well grounded in preliminary data and existing ideas, they are not rigid contracts. Moreover, again as Matt realizes, for every brilliant underappreciated idea, there’s not just one, but more like five bad ideas that absolutely should not be funded. I probably have that many before lunch!
A "people, not projects” approach sounds great if you can accurately identify those people who will consistently produce great science and not go off on too many wasteful tangents. But you can already guess that all that will happen is one set of gatekeepers (other scientists serving on review committees) is replaced by another, more opaque one (unaccountable administrators). And before you know it, the “usual suspects” will be getting funded and entire groups of people will be locked out (however you want to define them).
The answer to scientists not getting great ideas funded is so incredibly simple: just fund more proposals, as Kevin also points out below. Typical funding rates are about 10-20%, but no one on a review panel will say that means 80-90% of the proposals were not worth funding. So we spend a lot of time generating ideas, refining them, cutting them up and repackaging them, and shopping them around to different agencies. And while some of that undoubtably makes the science better, a lot of it is wasted time.
One more point: I know some of the projects called out by the Golden Fleece awards. I’ll just say that while politicians getting involved at this level is indeed kind of silly, they aren’t completely wrong either.
Man, I dream of a Democratic party that feels confident enough to say their American Families Plan reduces abortions
This is more important to the USA than Israel Palestine or the Middle East.
Thanks for taking on a topic close to my heart. The politics you detail reminds me of Bismark's comment about sausage making, and I try not to think about it. Speaking as a senior biomedical researcher wholly dependent on public support, I strongly disagree with those (including some you cite) who extoll ground-breaking paradigm-shifting "breakthroughs" over mundane incremental science. IMHO science IS incremental, and it is precisely for that reason that it has been so successful in advancing over the past 2 centuries.
From my own perspective, I have only two problems with NSF: first, that they don't have as much money as I would like, and second, that they are too heavily influenced by progressive shibboleths.
Just wandering in to agree with a lot of other commenters that for every single complaint about the current grant allocation system, the one and only solution is more money. There is no royal road to funding good projects. Research sucks, most of it doesn't work out, and you have no idea which projects or which scientists will or won't work out and you're delusional if you think you can do much better than what everyone is already trying their hardest to do. Hovering over some stingy bit of money and desperately trying to send it only to the "most deserving" scientists is just like hovering over a few college admissions spots and trying to admit only the most deserving students, or hovering over a few parcels of land and trying to allow only the optimal apartment buildings, or...we've been over this sort of thing a million times on this Substack. You want to fund more good projects, then fund many more projects, and eventually a few of them will be good. Stop looking for a cheat code.
On a more frivolous note, I would just like everyone to know that the NSF grant submission/administration website is the worst thing in the world. I do not understand how it can have been designed without intentional malice. Fixing that website would increase every American researcher's productivity by numerous hours a year even if you changed nothing else about the system.
the one depressing aspect of the marked up Endless Frontiers Act that you didn’t hit on, but that gut punched me, was that Maria Cantwell (D-WA) went to bat for Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin and added an amendment that prevented NASA from just awarding SpaceX the Lunar Lander contract for the SLS / Artemis program.
Whatever you think of Bezos or Musk, it’s hard to argue that SpaceX hasn’t wooped the entire private space industries butts when it comes to putting up or shutting up.
SpaceX formed about the same time as Blue Origin did, beat countless odds, and has put up many more times than it has been shut up…landing rockets on their tail end, reusing them up to 10x, sending humans to the space station on reusable rockets, etc. Meanwhile, Blue Origin has yet to even put a rocket in orbit.
SpaceX has taken 60% off the launch market by underbidding everyone else for launches by tens of millions of dollars. Even Boeing and Lockheed’s partnership (United Launch Alliance) has failed to compete…and now those companies are leveraging lobbying connections to basically get in on the action at the expense of NASA’s program timeline, etc.
A lot has been written about it, but the fundamental structure of companies like Boeing, Lockheed, and Blue Origin is just not capable of competing with a company structured like SpaceX. And instead of restructuring themselves and learning the lessons that SpaceX has taught everyone, people like Jeff Bezos just keep hiring the same old people to run things exactly as Lockheed and Boeing did, and he’s getting the same result.
In my field, astronomy, I think it's rare that transformative research is blocked because of the review process for grants. And I think it's unlikely that tinkering with the review process will significantly reduce the chances of transformative work going unfunded.
In astronomy, breakthroughs are driven by technological advances in telescopes, and those advances are limited by funding. So if you want to increase the number of breakthroughs in astronomy, you should increase the funding levels for the research infrastructure (telescopes and the labs that build their instruments). Meanwhile, if you want to promote more good research in general and train more young scientists, you should increase the funding levels for the grant programs at the NSF, NASA, etc. There are plenty of good proposals that get rejected because of the limited funding available.
I found this post incredibly frustrating. Matt would make a point and I would ready my devastating response(*) in my head and then read the next paragraph and he has fully met my objection. This happened several times, to my irritation.
Thoughtful, well-reasoned posts are the bane of my existence.
(*) Including googling "Golden Fleece Award."
I'm interested in these "secret Congress" dynamics. I live in Washington State where we just wrapped up our state legislative session. By all accounts it was pretty big year for the legislature and a number of big, and contentious things got over the finish line: a cap and trade bill; a new capital gains tax; and several police reform measures.
The session was also conducted virtually and didn't allow for the normal level of lobbying and advocacy and general daylight being cast on the things working their way through the process. It definitely wasn't a "secret" legislative session, but the relative productivity of the legislature seems like a real violation of the idea that big stuff doesn't happen without pressure, lobbying, advocacy, and lots of visibility.
I'm curious if similar dynamics played out in other state legislatures? Did others do things 100% virtually? Did this lower the visibility of what was going on, and in turn yield surprisingly substantive outcomes? Is my hunch about this completely wrong?
Half of MY’s articles argue essentially “Uncle Sam should spend more on X.” The obvious retort is “debt is bad, especially when the US just borrowed $6 trillion for the pandemic.”. I’d like to see Matt’s take on 4 issues:
1) How much inflation pressure will the newly deployed $6 trillion create? This is the biggest Keynesian experiment since World War Two, federal spending as a share of gdp approaches has approached World War One levels. There was serious inflation in 1918, why will this time be different?
2) What is the debt carrying capacity of the federal government? During the Napoleonic wars, British debt climbed to 250% of GDP and 1815 Britain was basically a subsistence economy with a few proto industrial sectors. The U.S. could probably borrow more than 250% of gdp without serious problems, but how much more?
3). How quickly should the US approach it’s debt carrying capacity? Should we leave a margin of error for a war or recession?
4) How do you convince swing voters and swing state senators that borrowing a greater percentage of gdp than 2007 Greece is a good idea?
A whole bunch of US science funding mechanisms were created either at the beginning of the Cold War (like NSF) or immediately after Sputnik appeared to show that the USSR was ahead in science and engineering (DARPA). It's not surprising that the China rivalry is also driving US science funding.
On grants: besides the problems described here, the big problem imo with NSF (and other!) grant-making procedures is the amount of work that is spent applying for them. Academics spend a large portion of their time applying for grants, and that in turn reduces the amount of time they spend doing the research the grants were supposed to support. Since NSF grants tend to be very competitive, this means that every grant made induces a lot of science *not* to happen, as for each scientific project funded, many scientists have been incentivised to spend a large amount of time not doing science.
In the context of a world where uncontroversial bills can pass through regular order like this, I don't think a watering down of ambitions like you saw with Endless Frontier is necessarily the end of the world. It might actually be a good thing! Some parts of this bill will work and others won't. If you think you'll get a second crack at this once we've learned from our experience, the rest of the money can be more appropriately targeted. I don't personally think it's a good idea to just throw $100 billion dollars at the NSF as it stands IF you believe congress can return to this issue and finish the job.
I think it's a consequence of the omnibus/reconciliation world of legislating where every law feels the need to 'solve' whatever problem it is addressing in full and in perpetuity. You see that with the ARP, which objectively has a TON of wasted and misdirected money in it. But it is defended correctly on the grounds that it is 'better to do too much than too little.' Left unsaid here is the assumption that you only get one shot at it. Obviously it would actually be much better to do too little and then a month later to do the right amount while taking into account what worked and what didn't.
If you believe in the definition of creativity as the synthesis of new ideas from disparate ones (i.e., connecting non-obvious dots) then the current funding model is designed to thwart creativity aggressively.
If scientist from Field A rubs elbows with scientists in Fields B and C and gets an interesting idea, their only hope of funding is to collaborate with people from Fields B and C. If they go through the front door, their proposals will be refereed by experts in Fields B and C, who will see the lack of familiarity with the norms of their field as a sign of amateurism and will be extremely skeptical than an idea they didn't think of, and don't understand well, is going to solve big problems in their field. (They're usually right; these are high-risk endeavors by definition.) But if the scientist from Field A tries to team up with scientists from Fields B and C, they will run into the same basic problem of trying to sell weird-looking ideas to skeptical experts, because they will have to apply in an existing call, which is always going to be based around known problems and potential solutions based on known ideas. (There is a feedback loop from program officers attending conferences and wanting to fund already-successful labs that is difficult to break through.) If they manage to get some funding, they will face the same problem all over again with editors and referees at the top journals. In the end, the disincentives to pursue truly creative research are so strong that only a few scientists at well-funded, high-profile institutions will even try.
In practice, the result is that a handful of labs define what is popular and then seed the academic landscape with their progeny, who fulfill that prophecy. Those who stick to the defined tracks, know their place and maintain good relationships will find friendly program officers and calls that were effectively written by their former advisors. They will write papers that get refereed by people who are primed to recognize that they are publishing an acceptable level of new results in their narrow sub-field, which will perpetuate the cycle. (It is hard to overstate how hard the system pushes back when you try to move out of your lane.) Much good science gets done this way, but when you under-fund science, it essentially all ends up flowing into this gatekeeper model, which is nigh incapable of producing actual fundamental breakthroughs because it rewards competition on papers, awards and profile (fame) rather than ideas.
We're essentially mining the breakthroughs of the 20th Century without seriously investing the approaches to science that created them. The diminishing returns is not because science is getting harder or more complex, it is the result of too many people are standing on the shoulders of giants rather than becoming giants themselves.
I mostly support the amendment taking some $ from the increased NSF to increase DoE R&D funding. My experience is that DoE programs in energy efficiency and advanced manufacturing are more engineering /application focused than NSF. I think that some of the big developments will need some patient money to cross the chasm to market-ready technologies. I think that some of the DoE programs are better set up than NSF to support those pre-commercial developments.
I agree the ambitions shrinking is bad and more money for science is great! I think ARRA roughly doubled NSF funding for a year and they had no trouble finding worthy projects to fund. I however don’t think it’s a big issue that some of the money went to DOE labs, which I think are doing some of the same technical work anyways that the bill envisioned. Also, with regard to the total amount of funding, I think there is also the issue of where in the research/development chain the funding is going to. If the funding represents primarily an increase in basic research funding that is very good because that is the kind of research that is least likely to be funded by the private sector. If however the funding is split more evenly between research and development I think this is much less good. Also, just because Congress authorized a certain amount of research in this bill doesn’t mean Biden couldn’t get the federal bureaucracy to allocate some more money to research than it already does, or to set research priorities that are particularly worthwhile. He also has the power to tackle some of the science bureaucracy issues you point out, though paradigm change is hard. And I hope with the return of earmarks that Congress becomes less interested in individual spending decisions and more interested in the broader outcomes government achieves. There was a real move in the last half of the 20th century to small ball Congressional thinking, and generally much less ambitious legislating. A Senator should be criticized, not praised, for worrying about $84,000 in spending. Lastly, I’d like the government to do some more prizes where the reward is received once the discovery has been made. This could incentivize a broader set of folks to look into important problems, and it has the benefit of avoiding the grant bureaucracy you rightly criticize.