Wednesday, November 28, 2007

More Scientists?

Gene Sperling's 24 July 2007 article in the Washington Post, "How to Get Fewer Scientists", painted a dire picture for NIH-funded research given a dwindling NIH budget. I generally agree this is a cause for concern, but it made me think, "How many more scientists do we need? How will we know when we have enough?". It also stirred up thoughts about "the big picture" of how and why we should fund science.

As a scientist by training and by nature, I'm all for more scientists. But the ultimate goal isn't necessarily to get more research-oriented, principle investigator (PI) scientists, which the NIH budget primarily feeds, but to improve the scientific health of the country, ensuring a continuous stream of new knowledge and innovations to foster national competitiveness and generally improve the human condition. PI-driven R&D is but one component of a larger scientific landscape that drives these goals, and I feel we would benefit from a resource allocation strategy that takes this whole landscape into account.

I think there are two main paths to improved national scientific health:
    1) diversification of scientific career path options,
    2) greater public appreciation of and accessibility to the scientific process.

Goal 1: Diversification of scientific career paths

Even in the most pro-science society, there will be a limit to governmental funding levels for basic R&D. So as we (hopefully) inspire ever increasing ranks of young folks eager to do science, we must also give them an awareness of the diversity of scientific career options available to them, and help foster new scientific niches as new knowledge unfolds. Whether we need more diversification or simply need to be better at communicating the existing diversity is open to debate.

Our scientific health would benefit if we could promote a range of viable and rewarding career paths to budding scientists, rather than cultivating a monoculture of Ph.D.s intent on the academic, R&D-oriented, federally funded career path. Increased awareness of scientific career options would also help attract folks interested in transitioning to science from other fields.

Increased diversification of the scientific work force would preserve the investment made in publicly funded scientific education, since it would diffuse the competition for jobs over a wider range of occupation types, making it less likely for trained scientists to opt out of the system due to difficulty finding employment for a limited number of tenure track positions. A greater diversity of scientific professions would also promote a positive scientific perspective throughout society, putting science on a more sustainable footing for future growth and furthering the cause of goal #2.

Goal 2: Greater public appreciation of and accessibility to the scientific process

Ultimately, I think we will see better governmental support for science when the general public is more scientifically appreciative. By this I don't necessarily mean more knowledgable, but rather interested in the scientific underpinnings of things, motivated to know how things work, and how they go awry. We need to do a better job at keeping alive our natural curiosity about how we know what we know, presenting the methods and discoveries of science as tools for addressing the problems of humanity, and encouraging a willingness to face both the benefits and risks of new innovations within a broader societal context. Discussing these things with kids and providing pointers to age-appropriate resources would be a good start.

This does two things. First, it will make the voting public more appreciative of important issues that require science funding, leading to funding levels that are commensurate with their true value to society. Second, it encourages more people to follow a scientific career path, spreading appreciation for the scientific understanding across a wider swath of society and enlisting more brain power to help solve complex problems ammenable to the scientific method.

As for how to best achieve the goals outlined above, science education and journalism play a big role. Stay tuned to the comments on this post for more ideas here.

Causes of Concern, Signs of hope.

One might even ask whether it makes sense to devote more funds toward R&D spending in the biosciences at a time when around half of the US public rejects evolution. Clearly, we need to do a better job getting more people on board and better educated about fundamental aspects of the life sciences. With that in place, I'd expect funding prospects to be a whole lot rosier.

I've seen some signs of improvement in science journalism in the mass media. The science section of the New York Times often has very compelling science stories and extended online-content. The health and technology sections of the Wall Street Journal often has very well-written stories as well, though their content is not open to non-subscribers. Wired does a decent job at hyping science to the techies, a key population segment. A Wired article on microRNA from 2005 turned up at the top of their most popular list on 8/11/07, and a 2003 article on RNAi appeared as #5 on the most popular list on 1 Oct 2007. Beating out other hot topics as Web 2.0 and pornography is quite an achievement, even if transient.