Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Science and Money: The Process

While its good to think on the large scales about science, art, spiritual endeavor and the search for the True and the Real, sometimes it's the day to day that matters. There are the scales on which metaphysics and the grand ideals of science exist and then there is the writing of your latest NASA grant. For the last week I have forsaken the former and have been living with the latter.

I have been to the mountain and have seen how laws, sausage and science funding is made. The truth is, it ain't so bad. After years of this I am still quite amazed at how well the system can works.

Science funding moves in a pretty straight forward way. You have an idea, you find out which funding agency the idea relates to best (NASA, the NSF, DOE, NIH, the alphabet soap goes on and and on). Then you figure out which program in that agency is right one to apply to (Astrophysical Data Program, Origins, AstroBiology, Living with a Star etc etc - these are NASA programs). Next you give up a couple of weeks of your life to write up a 15 page proposals with figures and equations. The proposal needs a decent narrative and a good balance of showing what your group has done and showing what you think you could get done in 3 years of funding. Then, if you are lucky, you have a talented administrative staff to help you navigate the pages and pages of government-issue forms and tables. Finally you send it in and light a candle at the alter of St. Euler who watches over grant proposals on astrophysical fluid dynamics. Then you wait and wait and wait.

It takes about a 9 months for the grants agency to get back to you. During that time a review committee gets selected and flown in from all over the country to discuss and rank the giant stack proposals the agency must deal with. The funding rate is usually somewhere between 10% (ugh) and 30% (ugh still but better). These panels are where the rubber meets the road meets the suasage making.

I have satt on a lot of these panels and for the most part I have to say they work. It is a most fascinating exercise to see the very human politics which goes into the search for eternal timeless truths. People have their biases. Some argue their case better than others. Sometimes a strong or well known personality can dominate the process. Still, in spite of all our foibles, it almost always seems that the best science gets recognized and rises to the top. I have always been impressed by this and it gives me faith that we have stumbled on something, some genuine workable means to organize the effort to understand the world.

Of course those proposals at the top don't always get funded. There simply is not enough money to fund the best ones that deserve funding (which I would estimate make up about a third of the proposals). Hopefully that will change with the new administration.

So that is how it works and if you ask me, in general it does work. I have had lots of proposals fail and enough proposals make it and overall I think the system is as fair as it can be.

But there is an important caveat here. I am writing about grants on the scale of an individual scientist or her group. When we talk large projects like the Large Hadron Collider or the International Space Station all this changes. Politics with a capitol P enters the picture in a big way. Projects on that scale, with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars on the line operate in a different realm. It is at that level that one can ask how the balance between science and other, less scientific, demands are managed.

The search for truth and spending of a nations treasure - how do they overlap? How do they balance?


  1. St Euler - wonderful, delightful. I will light a candle for him.

  2. @Adam, I'm encouraged by both your fitting use of the word, "faith" as well as your stumbling onto a possible means for organizing our efforts to understand the world.

    I'm curious; how does relevancy get parsed and attributed in these grant situations?

  3. @Adam, perhaps truth itself is an anthropological necessity (which - among other things - I do believe deeply). The "nation’s treasures" are subjected to the desire of the collective conscious. If the collective conscious, the nation, deems it worthy of hunting out ‘scientific’ truths (albeit sometimes for morally inferior purposes), then it will allocate the funds in accordance with that. If the drive for the pursuit of truth supersedes other instinctual drives within the human makeup, then maybe we should do more in funding serious scientific/scholarly research...

  4. Here's a question that ties this and some other posts together- What's the ultimate hope of Science? Or, what does Science see as its grand hope?

  5. In law the adversary process is the only known way of arriving at the truth in a matter of dispute. That much is well known. It is a form of symbolic conflict with referees, rules and a formal setting. The conflict results in all facts and points of view being revealed so that the referees can arrive at the best decision.
    What is less well known is that this adversary process of symbolic conflict is at the heart of so much more. It is the reason a free press works. It is the reason a parliamentary democracy works. It is the reason the peer review process in science works. And it underlies the workings of the political process (in democracies). It is a natural successor to the evolutionary survival of the fittest except we can now re-phrase it as the survival of the most relevant.

    I say all this because it is customary to decry politics and the ugliness of the conflict and compromises. But there is no better process for society to find the right balance between competing priorities.

    Just as evolution is wasteful, goes down blind alleys and tries bizarre experiements so too is politics. But just like evolution, it will in the long run succeed, because at their heart, they are the same. Except with democratic politics, actual conflict is replaced by symbolic conflict.

  6. @Occasional- Nice! This piece gets at the way we can reframe the context in which we live together in a rather poignant way.

    I like the way you put this in a symbolic dimension that is grounded to evolutionary dynamics.

    "It is a natural successor to the evolutionary survival of the fittest except we can now re-phrase it as survival of the most relevant."

    This line is so pregnant; just the part, "we can now"... no other species has this kind of interaction with evolution! Earlier in commenting with me, Adam raised the idea of co-evolution: I think that your writing here fleshes some of this idea out.

    The reason I don't like the combative and Limbough styled right wing politics, is that they aim to dissolve the opposite pole of tension and collapse a living system rather than engage properly in "symbolic conflict for relevance". Or maybe more accurately put; in nature, life proceeds because an underlying conflict finds its place in a higher ordered body; if one side of the conflict is anihalated, any possible ensuing higher order is anihalated as well.

    Anyway Occasional, your thoughts here are giving me much food for thought!

  7. I see a pattern becoming relevant in this dialog and it is centered on ambiguity.

    In using this word to connote any situation that looks unclear to us, we misunderstand the kind of confusion that it actually was designed to denote. The segment, "ambi", means more than one as in ambidextorous- someone who could use either hand:

    So a true ambiguity doesn't arise from situations where we can't see clearly, but in situations where we can -clearly see- at least two aspects, that on their own, are each fully fledged and relevant aspects -and- contradict each other. Experiencing confusion in an ambiguity is distinct because it means that we have yet to understand the higher order that can embody its underlying contradictory aspects. (Paradox is the ultimate ambiguity.)

    States of confusion unsettle us. But if the the state of confusion arises from a true ambiguity, and for the sake of relief we seek to eradicate one of the aspects instead of living with the pain of holding them together, then we'll miss out on giving birth to a higher order.

    I think that if there is anything that Adam's blog, The Constant Fire embodies, I would argue that it has embodied ambiguity. We have lived with the inherent tension of ambiguity in hopes of finding that higher order.

    Gone are those who can't stand such tension and would rather feel the comfort of familiar and well worn world views that disembowel an ambiguity. I for one, think ambiguity points to life!

  8. @joesph

    So why do some nations make science a priority and some don't? I am struck by how nations with same GNP will choose very different paths in their support of science (say in Europe or Soth America). What does this say about their national collective will?

  9. @occasional Some of what you are saying sounds like Stuart Kauffman in how evolution self-organizes structures be them living systems, or the economy. Is there an economy of ideas that this process of funding science has organized which leads both to blind alleys and the emergence of new truths?

  10. @Mike In this article I am writing on Law without Law I was really struck by something the philosphher Roberto Unger said that much of is happening in theoretical physics is not about explaining but explaining away. There are a variety of amibiguities that have arisen which physicists are struggling with and in response they have inventing things like extra dimensions or multiple universes. Unger is critical of these becuase they do deal with the real experienced world. I think your point about confusion and multiple perspectives (paradox too) speaks to what the proper responce should be.

  11. Adam, your mention of Kaufman is interesting. I find many parallels between your thinking and his. I am not so sure about self organisation, will have to do more reading.
    My thinking is this. When the first dim awareness of environment emerged in living systems it created the opportunity for choice and therefore for selection of some best alternative. A best choice nearly always exists because of the likely assymetry of a random set. As more choices became apparent living systems developed a mechanism for searching the alternatives. I believe this is a fundamental force that give direction to what would otherwise be random evolution. Today we experience this force as 'curiosity' which compels us to search alternatives for the most viable direction. So evolution is no longer random, it is given direction by the force of 'curiosity'. Because it is directed there is faster and more effective change. I prefer this idea (directed evolution) to self-organisation and would elevate the idea of 'curiosity' to near mythic status :))
    The relevance to your post is that if we want to take advantage of politics we must do all we can to provoke curiosity.

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