Is Funding Scientific ?

News story with UK opposition bemoaning government “stranglehold” on science funding – “Return control of science funding to the scientists” calls Osborne.

[Post Note – the opinion that follows is in response to the implicit suggestion in the reporting of that quote that, because scientists are concerned with science, they are somehow specially qualified not just to be involved in science funding, but even in control of it.]

Science funding decisions are simply not scientific decisions. They depend on values and objectives. They are at least a philosophy of science issue, and depending how narrow or enlightened that is, a lot more philosophy besides – existence, knowledge and ethics too – wisdom for short.

This is Nick Maxwell’s agenda for Aim-Oriented-Empiricism and Wisdom-Enquiry.

15 thoughts on “Is Funding Scientific ?”

  1. I don’t think I can agree with Osborne here either. If the government has doubled funding but government control has gone from 2% to 20%, that’s still a 63% increase in funds that scientists get to control. Perhaps Osborne doesn’t think the government is spending their part wisely, or isn’t capable of making informed decisions, but the article doesn’t go into that.

    Ian, your contribution to this is that “Science funding decisions is simply not scientific decisions”. The implication here is that scientists can’t make value judgments and that whatever decision making process they use, it lacks wisdom, even though time and time again scientists show they are perfectly capable of wise decisions. I believe the Friends of Wisdom admit this happens but think this behavior is indicative of a neurosis, as if acting human makes scientists sick. Is that about right?

  2. Hey, it’s valid debate about whoever is making wise funding decisions, I have no other specific interest or knowledge of the current debate. The debate is good.

    My point is the one you highlight, in response to the specific quote from Osborne. No implications of the kind you suggest.

    Scientists are humans, so have as much right to consider the value of science as anyone. But people who think naturally in scientific terms should not be “in control” of science budgets. (Osborne’s words – “control” implies exclusive / veto rights.)

    In order to make value judgements a scientist needs to stand back from his role as the scientist, or at least recognise the role is more than scientist in this debate – they are quite humanly capable of that. But, the natural tendency to think in scientific terms, beyond the content of science, to all the issues around science (and any kind of “scientific or social enquiry” to use Nick’s words) is the neurosis – the neurosis is not to see, or perhaps deny that issue. One we all share, not just scientists. My problem is not with scientists, but with the meme we call “science” – scientific thinking applied to things beyond science.

  3. I certainly agree that being too close to something can affect your objectivity and that turf wars abound, but as you said, this is a “[problem] we all share, not just scientists”. So let’s re-focus on your particular issue with scientists.

    Would you agree with me that scientists should have discretion over what is done with some funds earmarked for science, and that they should be placed in an advisory capacity for those funds that aren’t discretionary?

    I’m a bit confused by what you mean about using scientific thinking outside the scope of science. What kind of scientific thinking is this and can you give specific examples of this kind that resulted, in your view, in poor funding decisions?

  4. First Glenn, I repeat.
    I have no issue / problem whatsoever with scientists. Got that ?

    The problem is with the scientific meme. The expectation (like yours now) that by a series of challenges you will reduce a situation to some simple objective (empirical) logical statements.

    Do I agree that “scientists” should have SOME discretion over relevant aspects of what is done with scientific funding ? Of course I do.

    Do I agree that “scientists” should be placed in SOME advisory capacity over how funds (in general) are allocated / set ? Of course I do, the original statement said “control” – unqualified.

    But “scientists” are not a monolithic thing. So as well as questions of the interests of “non-scientists”, for both bodies this is a question of “governance” of bodies of humanity. And that is not a science or logic. Let’s stop there for now, see if you get the point(s).

    (PS And Osborne’s original dumb logic is the same scientific meme problem – scientific funding is about science therefore scientists should be in control of it. Not because the subject is science, but because the logic is “scientific”.)

  5. Your unqualified “science funding decisions are simply not scientific decisions”, is surely just as wrong as Osborne’s quote about “control”. Let’s try to have some perspective about context, here. The article with Osborne’s quote was hardly comprehensive.

    Why accuse me of employing the scientific meme in this instance – “that by a series of challenges you will reduce a situation to some simple objective (empirical) logical statements”, when all I did was ask you to provide examples of scientific thinking misapplied in the area of scientific funding? It’s bizarre, not true, and does you no good besides. What am I supposed to do? If someone claimed that “Martians filling humans’ heads with evil thoughts was a bad thing”, I would be hard-pressed to disagree it was a bad thing but I wouldn’t be concerned until I believed that Martians were really doing it.

    Why not take my questions as an opportunity to convince skeptics of your position, a position that is the agenda of your blog, no less? If you can’t back up your general concerns with particulars, why should anyone be compelled to agree with them?

    Let me repeat my questions:
    I’m a bit confused by what you mean about using scientific thinking outside the scope of science. What kind of scientific thinking is this and can you give specific examples of this kind that resulted, in your view, in poor funding decisions?

  6. Ooops, that was quick (I added a late PS to my previous response – but doesn’t change the point).

    Look Glenn, if your suplementary question was in the absence of history between us, I might try to answer it directly. And I will when the starting point is right.

    (Actually, it’s too easy to answer – try this example – “deciding to spend trillions of dollars on a war in Iraq” – as opposed to all the other ways it could have been spent. This was a “scientific” question in my sense because all the justification / rationalisation came down to the empirical evidence and simplistic logic of “WMD or not”, just like the example here is “science or not”.)

    But it’s too big to dive straight to that level. I’m trying to build.

    So, your opening logic in that last comment is wrong.

    “[A funding decision] is simply not science” is a true statement.

    Whereas, the implication that “scientific funding is a scientific decision, for scientists, because it’s scientific” is spurious and irrelevant to the funding decision.

    You comments never start from what I said, but from a misunderstanding of my starting point. So I’m trying to fix that – bigger questions are (by definition) more complex, and you show no inclination to recognize that.

  7. Thinking out loud, about my agenda vs yours ….

    You started earlier by “acknowledging” that part of the problem might be “being too close to something to be objective”.

    This illustrates my problem with your (and most people’s) thinking. That somehow “being objective” was always a good thing, and “not being objective” a problem. It was never my point in this (or any) post, and is another illustration of our meta-problem – to even have this dialogue.

    Nabokov – “I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more”

    Paine – “it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself”

    Ian – It is hard for me even to express my point in terms you will accept. I’m not avoiding it just admitting the problem, and trying to find some way to continue the dialogue – if we both have the patience and motivation.

  8. Ian: ‘Whereas, the implication that “scientific funding is a scientific decision, for scientists, because it’s scientific” is spurious and irrelevant to the funding decision.’

    Agreed, but Osborne didn’t say what you quoted above and I seriously doubt he implied that, either. Osborne most likely wants scientists to have a strong say in science funding because they know better than politicians which projects are yielding good results and which aren’t. Your original statement is true but it surely rebuts nothing. I’ve never heard anyone make the claim that science funding is a science. This appears to be a strawman argument.

    Your example that going to war in Iraq was a scientific rationalization driven by empirical evidence of WMD is strange considering there was and remains today no such empirical evidence. If there actually had been evidence it would have been a different story. Also, I asked for examples dealing with science funding. I realize a war is funded, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. 😉

    On your point about being too close to something to be objective, I thought you touched on that when you said “a scientist needs to stand back from his role as the scientist”. I was thinking along the lines of a scientist facing the problem of favoring his own research interests when it comes to funding, and not having the ability to stand back and look at the bigger picture, but I see now that you probably meant something more general than that – the struggle between his role as a scientist and a non-scientist. Personally, I think this is less of a problem. A scientist is no more or no less moral than the non-scientist, and a good person, regardless of his profession, will direct his energies to morally responsible outcomes.

    It’s tiresome to hear once again that your reluctance to answer my questions is grounded on our history or an improper starting point or of the problem being too big and complex to get into. I think what I’m asking is reasonable, and that you should make a *concerted* effort to answer, if not for my benefit, for your own and all your other readers.

  9. Had I been making an “argument” against Osborne … it would have indeed been a strawman 😉 I said already I had no further inside knowledge on the debate.

    (The fact that you see the conversation as an argument is that meme again. And again, that same meme, you interpreted “stand back” as from one point of involved subjectivity to a point of (disinterested) objectivity. I didn’t mean that, how could I I don’t believe in subjects and objects as you know – I meant to another point of involved and interested humanity. Subjectivity / objectivity is over-rated. But anyway …)

    More to the point, I was responding to the news story quote, (not Osborne’s argument) which is where the memes get spread, and the easy rhetorical link between science, scientists and science funding in the snappy quote. I know for sure George Osborne is intelligent enough to have a more enlightened debate, but that doesn’t get reported. Only the simplistic meme.

    How “strong” a say scientists should have is a value judgement. I don’t think scientsts even “know better” necessarily either. But as I said – I would not reduce a question like this to such simplistic terms myself.

    What you are asking is “reasonable” – that’s the problem, the standard of what is reasonable.

    I am not avoiding your question … we can come back to the Iraq war decision if you like … or the recent genetic engineering / stem-cell debates if you like …. but only on my terms, on my blog 😉 (Thanks for persevering.)

  10. Uhh, Ian, the snappy news story quote does not say that funding is scientific either. There is not even a suggestion of it. In fact neither does any part of the article. You made that up.

    (You’re welcome.)

  11. The snappy news story quoted again “Return control of science funding to the scientists”.

    Prompted by that I expresed a simple statement of my own – much re-quoted in these comments. I made up neither. I wasn’t making an argument. You called one a strawman to the other. I agreed it would be, if I had been arguing. So I’m agreeing again.

    You several times yourself defended that idea, that somehow scientists were (therefore) better placed to control such funding. ie you inferred the same logic as I suggested the original quote (by the BBC) was meant to convey. You illustrated my point. I didn’t make that up either.

    You actually ignore my points, in order to have some argument I’m not interested in having (as usual).

  12. Let me try to sort this out for you, because you seem utterly confused. I will go over three statements of yours and explain why I agreed or disagreed with them.

    This blog entry title: “Is Funding Scientific”. No, it is not. I agree with you. It is based on opinions. Some are clearly more informed than others and carry more weight, but it is not scientific in any strict sense of the word, in the way that physics or chemistry is scientific.

    In the body of this blog entry:
    “Science funding decisions are simply not scientific decisions.” I disagree, and initially I thought there was a qualification by you two sentences later with “at least”, but now I’m not so sure. (This is why, in #5 first para, I made a point to say that your statement is wrong, only when taken unqualified). This is a different statement than the blog entry title. Scientific decisions certainly are a factor in funding decisions. For example, a research group re-applying for a grant might justify its work by showing the results of its science from the previous year. The quality of this science is a scientific matter and involves a scientific decision, and it forms at least part of the determination for continued funding. (This is not to say that the scientific decision is always straight-forward or without controversy).

    From #6:
    “Whereas, the implication that ‘scientific funding is a scientific decision, for scientists, because it’s scientific’ is spurious and irrelevant to the funding decision.” I agree with you. I agree because of the “because it’s scientific” part at the end. Neither scientific funding nor scientific decisions are themselves scientific [objects of inquiry]. That is indeed spurious and irrelevant. No one believes that. Only the science being considered for funding is scientific.

    Does this help? You are acting as if all three statements are equivalent when logically they are not.

  13. Glenn said to Ian “You seem utterly confused.”

    Ian says to Glenn “Keep your personal insults to yourself.”

    (There is nothing in the rest of that comment that says anything I didn’t already appreciate. If you change your tone, I might find time and motivation to give a detailed response, but as usual all you’re looking for is a fight.)

  14. I apologize for that and will try to keep my cool in the future when you misrepresent my position. If you could only see that I was trying to clear up our misunderstanding. Ah, what’s the use. Still, it was better than our previous conversation 🙂 See ya.

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