From the Archives: Funding Scientific Research

Leon Cooper in 2007. Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel

Leon Cooper in 2007. Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel

More than 16 years ago, Cerebrum published an essay by Leon Cooper, Nobel prize-winning physicist and a member of the executive committee of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, on the monetary state of the field then, called “Scientific Research: Who Benefits? Who Pays?” Has anything changed?

In 1998, the annual direct and indirect costs of brain-related illnesses in the U.S. was estimated at $600 billion, writes Cooper. The figure now is $760 billion; worldwide, the WHO has estimated costs at $3 trillion and increasing.

In 1998, Cooper described one problem he saw in funding methods:

Many promising research directions are not funded; these are lost opportunities. What is worse, in my opinion, is the resulting siege mentality among funders, which has led to excessive micro-management and extreme conservatism in supporting research. Agencies that have contributed mightily to fundamental science, and produced applications of great value, are under pressure to narrow their goals, focusing on research with immediately apparent results. All of this has put destructive stress on the system.

His suggestions?

First, increase public research funding to bring it in line with current needs. J. Morton Davis, Chairman of the Board of the D. H. Blair Investment Bank Corporation, suggested recently that we might compare what is spent on this country’s research effort with the Pentagon budget. Is defending ourselves against disease as important as defending ourselves against foreign enemies?

In addition to funds allocated by Congress, a much larger role could be played by private foundations and individual giving. Foundations have the flexibility to be more adventurous than public funders, stepping into the breach opened by the conservatism of government funding…

Second, link future public funding of research to some index such as the GDP, or a phantom royalty calculated as a percentage of the value of the technology and commercial products that have grown out of fundamental research during a shifting time window (say the past 75 years). This royalty should be commensurate with that paid to license the technology. (The long time window is critical because fundamental research does not usually produce a return on investment in the next quarter.) After all, if research is a major contributor to the GDP, shouldn’t investment in research be commensurate with the benefits that it produces?

… As important as the level of funding is the ability to anticipate the amount of future funding, so that we could plan more sensibly. At present, agency funding cycles are relatively short—a few years at best— while producing a research scientist takes many years. Likewise, the results of basic research are often long in coming, so year-to- year changes in funding can be disruptive. Much of the current effort to find causes and treatments of disease involves genetic technology built on the basic research on DNA by James D. Watson, Francis Crick, and their colleagues—work that goes back at least half a century. Today, identifying the genes involved in neurological conditions such as Huntington’s disease, manic-depressive illness, and some forms of alcoholism is a critical step toward diagnosis and effective treatments…

Third, maintain a basic, balanced division of research funds between support for pursuing specific leads promising treatment of disease (or production of new technologies) and fundamental research directed toward producing new science, and thus new leads. A research portfolio is not unlike an investment portfolio; we need diversification of areas and risks and an eye for the long-term, overall return. Because research in one area (or one science) so often has unexpected applications in other areas (and other sciences), we should forswear wild funding swings from one fashionable area to another, or declarations of war on first one disease and then another. We should focus on maintaining a healthy, diversified research portfolio in all the sciences.

He has a lot more to say, including an argument in favor of funding via many agencies, which seems in opposition to today’s “initiatives” process.  And he eloquently argues that breakthroughs in brain science and treatment will not always come from brain researchers:

Some advances will come with gratifying speed. Others will come more slowly. The problems are not easy. Sometimes the fundamental knowledge is just not in place; sometimes we are delayed in the most frustrating way by lack of resources. Some discoveries will come from extending existing science. Some will come from utterly unexpected directions, from research in seemingly unrelated fields: research supported by agencies, in addition to the National Institutes of Health, as diverse as the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Think again of nuclear magnetic resonance (beloved of physicists) that led to modern brain imaging, or think of research into the stimulated emission of microwaves (an esoteric quantum effect) that led to the laser, and thence to its use in surgery.

—Nicky Penttila

[revised May 18, 2015]

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