Friday, May 29, 2009

Feeding The Priests: Science, Religion and Society

So the NASA proposal on star formation is finished and has been committed to the great unknown of the review process. Now that's done I am reflecting on how cultures throughout history (and prehistory) have kept those charged with "truth-making" in business.

Modern society spends a lot on its scientists and there are lots of us. Some of us work on very practical applications of science designed to make people healthier, more productive and, perhaps, happier. Some of us work on big questions with no practicle applciation. Either way, in many ways science functions as a priesthood in the big mythological sense of bringing the culture a sense of what is true and real in the world and offering some control over that world.

Did other societies have as large as "priestly class" as we have? Whatever the proportion of that class relative to the society as a whole how where their activities funded? How was the culture's "treasure" apportioned to the people who were responsible for dealing with the culture's unseen truths (Gods, spirits, etc). Throughout time there have been shamans, temple priests, monastics and monasteries. Sometimes these were highly organized with great amounts of wealth committed to their development (think the churches of medieval Europe or the mountain monasteries of Buddhist china). How does our activity compare with theirs? The impulsive in both cases has similar imperatives even if the effect is very different.

We have been at this truth game for a long, long time. How is the nuts and bolts of funding the truth-makers similar? How has it changed?

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?