Webinar on 'Doing Better at… Funding Scientific Research'

This webinar on scientific funding mechanisms seems very interesting (although I assume it will be US biased). The moderator Jason Crawford has a good blog about the history of industrial progress (RootsOfProgress) that has several recent posts about scientific funding models (here, here, here and here), and Michael Nielson, author of the early open science book Reinventing Discovery is on the panel (he has also done research on topics ranging from quantum computing to cognitive tools, much of which I believe he has worked on independently).

The webinar is on Sunday, 12PM Pacific time. Unfortunately, there is a $5 fee to attend. I plan to do so and will try to ask about their thoughts on funding mechanisms for independent researchers, which is a topic of interest for IGDORE. I may post some notes about the discussion here afterwards.


Very interesting! I’m definitely curious as to what Michael Nielsen’s current perspective is on all this.

thanks @Gavin. i have read crawfords’ articles and nielsen’s book wikipedia description that you shared, as well as more on the book though google.

given funding is also my preoccupation (see my open science tv post reply, and my masters degree is on education funding), i read all of this with great interest.

you are right when you say that it is u.s centric. i would add that it is also ‘western’ and ‘neoliberal’ centric, given the references provided in crawford’s articles, and the thrust of analysis in all the articles and book.

i wonder if the discussion would benefit from this recent interview jacobin interview (1) with mirowski (who also has written a critical article on open science - which i think directly criticises nielsen’s thesis in his book), and piketty’s newly released book, capital and ideology, as understood from this review by fazi (2).

for example, for research funding, the reason for u.s last century’s dominance was actually the gathering of brilliant minds and the effectively unlimited funding given to them. depending on perspective, it could be fortunate or unfortunate that these unlimited funding occurred under the umbrella of military research (including the space race - which gave us so many of our current technology).

this century, china is repeating this model. find briliant minds and provide them with effectively unlimited funding in areas deemed strategic (e.g. ai). theyy initially had difficulty with scientific integrity, but have realized their mistakes, and changed their policies. it remains to be seen whether these policies are effective.

mirowski said in the interview that the neoliberal thinkers were essentially told that they would have unlimited funding for research and dissemination, and hence we get the world that we are in now, where neoliberal principles and practice dominate.

as for piketty, fazi stated that he suggested that every individual be given a significant capital endowment (100 thousand for u.s context). now i’ve known and advocated this idea for a long time as ‘baby bond’ and ‘stakeholder society’, and am happy that piketty is shining a new spotlight on it.

add to the idea of 3 universal basics (jobs, income, services), and 1 universal jubilee (debt), you can imagine that the issue of scientific and knowledge funding be put to where it primarily belongs: the national state.

given that we know now that money can be freely created by the state at the national level (see the countless discussion on mmt even on mainstream media) to increase productive capacity and productivity, including in scientific and knowledge endeavors, we really have an effective rethoric and realistic proposal to replace the current neoliberal funding predicaments, especially given the context of today’s many crisis, inluding health (pandemic) and existential (climate).

what left is how to distribute the productivity gain, which mazucatto and friend has discussed about in their recent paper (3).

:slight_smile: surya

(1) https://jacobinmag.com/2020/05/neoliberals-response-pandemic-crisis

(2) https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2020/05/overcoming-capitalism-without-overcoming-globalism/

(3) https://twitter.com/MazzucatoM/status/1262318154757390337?s=20

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i am actually laughing reading this article (and the comments - is koch from koch family?), represented by this quote by nielsen. :slight_smile:

"To understand this collaboration-as-trade perspective, let’s review some ideas about trade in the context where trade is most often discussed, namely, free trade of goods. We’ll start with a beautiful simplifed model of free trade, a model that goes back to a famous 1817 book “On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation”, by the economist David Ricardo. Like many useful models, it leaves out a lot that’s relevant to the real world, but it does capture an essential element of the world, and we can learn a great deal by thinking about the model. In particular, the model demonstrates vividly why all parties involved in free trade can benefit, and is one of the main reasons most economists strongly support free trade.

(A small digression: there’s a family connection in this post, since David Ricardo was my Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Uncle.)"


perhaps this is the danger of not researching thoroughly when a scientist or scholar venture to other fields.

what nielsen misses out about the advantage of free trade is: “free trade is only advantageous after full employment has been fulfilled”.

see for example:

“One of the first lessons learned by introductory students in economics (and evidently quickly forgotten after graduation) is that benefits from trade are reaped in conditions of full employment .”

ricardo himself and later economist who followed him uncritically assumed this condition of free employment, before and after trade, for all trading parties.

see this blistering criticism:

"My second illustration to underscore this point relates to trade theory, which assiduously propagates that trade among countries always works to the mutual benefit of both. This is a view which is officially upheld to this day by agencies like the WTO that want freer trade to be instituted everywhere. In fact however the entire experience of colonial economies like India clearly demonstrates the contrary. Being open to trade was the cause of “deindustrialisation”, which threw millions of weavers and other craftsmen out of employment because of the import of cheap machine-made goods from the capitalist metropolis. The displaced artisans were thrown on to land, raising rents, lowering wages, and depressing incomes of large sections of the population (except of course the landlords who on the contrary benefited from it); it was the genesis of modern mass poverty in these economies. And yet students all over the world including in these very countries are taught theories which propagate the virtues of free trade ignoring their own experience.

How does mainstream theory achieve this feat of “demonstrating” the virtues of free trade? It does so simply by assuming that all “factors of production” are fully employed in each economy both before and after it has been opened up for trade. If this assumption is granted then naturally there is no scope for any “deindustrialisation”, since the displaced artisans would, by assumption, get re-absorbed in the export sector rather than remaining unemployed or under-employed. The fact that the export sector in the colonial economy (or more generally any third world economy even today) consists of primary commodities whose output cannot increase because of limited land availability, so that the newly unemployed would simply crowd the labour market to the detriment of all, is just assumed away. In effect therefore the overwhelming historical fact of deindustrialisation is just assumed never to occur! An obviously tendentious theory derived from such deliberately concocted assumptions is then passed off as economic wisdom."

since the topic is economics, perhaps its better to examine the arguments of the recent swedish bank prize winner, paul romer. :slight_smile:

see for example:

more: https://paulromer.net/archive/

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also, i just remembered. there were also many dark sides to u.s scientific and technological dominance last century (as well as european and western dominance) in general (similarly with china’s increasing dominance this century).

for example, one of the most recent dark side i knew after watching the movie ‘dark water’, which was about dupont. further research led me to the knowledge that dupont stole (tens/hundreds) of patents from germany (and the ‘depravity’ of at least one member of the dupont family).

see these articles for dupont and the broader dark side:


Thanks for your thoughts @surya. As always, I’m impressed by both the depth and breadth of your knowledge on these topics! I wish I had time to read all of the references you link to an respond thoughtfully, but as usual, I don’t.

you are right when you say that it is u.s centric. i would add that it is also ‘western’ and ‘neoliberal’ centric

I have worried that my views on science funding and innovation have become biased towards US/English sources and examples, and I suspect that this is just because of the availability and ease with which I can access these sources. This is somewhat ironic, as of the four countries I’ve lived in three have been non-English speaking countries! I had not considered political ideology as a bias before, but it does seem relevant. If I took this on as a more serious project, then I really should aim to round out my perspectives with information about other countries policies.

I found the review of Piketty’s book by Fazi to be particularly interesting, and copied in a few quotes that I think are relevant to the science funding conversation:

Knowledge-intensive industries, which now account for 30 per cent of global output, are gaining as much from intellectual property (IP) as from the production of goods or services. This represents a political choice to grant monopolies over knowledge to private interests, allowing them to restrict access to knowledge and to raise the price of obtaining it or of products and services embodying it.

“The key to understanding the basis of power and the resulting distribution of wealth,” Pistor writes, “lies . . . in the process of bestowing legal protection on select assets and to do so as a matter of private, not public, choice.” It is only by grafting onto assets the legal attributes of priority, durability, universality, and convertibility that such assets can be transformed into capital. “There is no capital without law,” Pistor notes, and “the law has been placed firmly in the service of capital.” For Piketty, these new forms of property are fundamentally illegitimate. In many cases, they are based on publicly funded research. Consider Mariana Mazzucato’s famous claim that every technology that makes the iPhone so “smart” was government-funded: the internet, GPS, its touch screen, and the voice-activated Siri. More generally, innovations are built on the collective knowledge accumulated by mankind through the centuries.

The logical conclusion is that, if the rules of the game can be changed to fight a “war” against a deadly virus, they can be changed to wage “war” on poverty, unemployment, inequality, climate change. It’s simply a question of political will.

Inequality is neither economic nor technological: it is ideological and political. . . . The market and competition, profits and wages, capital and debt, skilled and unskilled workers, natives and aliens, tax havens and competitiveness—none of these things exist as such. All are social and historical constructs, which depend entirely on the legal, fiscal, educational, and political systems that people choose to adopt and the conceptual definitions they choose to work with. . . . At every level of development, economic, social, and political systems can be structured in many different ways; property relations can be organized differently; different fiscal and educational regimes are possible; problems of public and private debt can be handled differently; numerous ways to manage relations between human communities exist; and so on.

what nielsen misses out about the advantage of free trade is: “free trade is only advantageous after full employment has been fulfilled”.

I was not aware that the benefits of free-trade depended on full employment. To be charitable to Nielson, the attention of stereo-typically overworked modern academics probably is being nearly fully utilized, so such an analysis may be relevant here.

I found Mirowski’s article on open-science, this part of the abstract is enticing.

Yet when one looks seriously at the flaws in modern science that the movement [open-science] proposes to remedy, the prospect for improvement in at least four areas are unimpressive. This suggests that the agenda is effectively to re-engineer science along the lines of platform capitalism, under the misleading banner of opening up science to the masses.

I’ll try to read this properly soon, it is always good to look at a well-reasoned critique of one’s movement (particularly in relation to the digital platform approach that seems to be being driven by tech entrepreneurs).

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Here are a few notes on interesting comments from the webinar (my thoughts are in parentheses). The webinar was fairly general in nature and, as previously speculated, it was very focused on the US funding environment.

  • The growth in research funding has outpaced inflation by 3-4% annually (I missed what time period this was over).
  • Academic funders generally have asymmetric tolerance to upsides vs. downsides. (‘High-risk’ research rarely fails…)
  • NIH research funding was doubled between 1998-2003. In the end, this didn’t solve many of the problems that it was intended to. One recognized problem at that time was the increasing age of researchers when they get there the first major grant, this is still the case.
  • Pre-clinical studies on animal disease models often get done using generic drugs, but these almost never get continued because pharma companies don’t fund further clinical trials on off-patent drugs. (Why fund pre-clinical work that can never go anywhere? Why not publically fund the clinical work?)
  • There is apparently a funding void for projects needing around ~$50 million. Bigger projects can get funded by international consortia (i.e CERN) while there are many funding mechanisms to give individual labs smaller amounts. (I’m not so sure about this as I think many national labs have budgets in that range, but it may apply to individual projects).
  • Research fields often suffer diminishing returns, but the creation of a new academic field often reveals new ‘low-hanging’ fruits. An example given was of formal logic moving quite slowly up until the birth of the computer, which then opened up the field of computer science. (My example would be the discovery of DNA allowing genetics to use molecular biology). Very little work has been done on how new fields are formed and most people refer to Kuhn, 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
  • Foundational work in many new fields, particularly interdisciplinary ones, is typically unsupported by academic funders. Philanthropists sometimes fill this funding gap.
  • Who are the ‘customers’ of federal funding agencies? DARPA -> military, NIH -> ? (plausibly health insurers), NSF -> ?. (This idea was not discussed as much as I would have liked).
  • University technology transfer offices do not operate very smoothly. This paper presents an interesting perspective: The Changing Structure of American Innovation: Some Cautionary Remarks for Economic Growth (abstract below)

A defiining feature of modern economic growth is the systematic application of science to advance technology. However, despite sustained progress in scientific knowledge, recent productivity growth in the U.S. has been disappointing. We review major changes in the American innovation ecosystem over the past century. The past three decades have been marked by a growing division of labor between universities focusing on research and large corporations focusing on development. Knowledge produced by universities is not often in a form that can be readily digested and turned into new goods and services. Small firms and university technology transfer offices cannot fully substitute for corporate research, which had integrated multiple disciplines at the scale required to solve significant technical problems. Therefore, whereas the division of innovative labor may have raised the volume of science by universities, it has also slowed, at least for a period of time, the transformation of that knowledge into novel products and processes.

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Thanks @Gavin . Wish there is a chinese webinar on the same topic, so we could compare and contrast the approaches. :slight_smile:

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Here is a u.s development… :slight_smile:

Adam Tooze (@adam_tooze) Tweeted: Since the 1980s government financed R&D has halved as a share of US GDP whilst business funded research has risen -> public-private balance has shifted dramatically.
https://t.co/nIIndkHRjU https://t.co/JQqGcHaqo2 (https://twitter.com/adam_tooze/status/1270392714685607938?s=20)

That’s interesting. It sounded promising when I heard that research funding had outpaced inflation, but it has obviously fallen behind the GDP growth rate.

I skimmed the book Venture Investing in Science (available on LibGen) a while ago. It went into more detail than I need, but might be of more interest for anybody who’d like to learn about US investment in R&D. As I recall, the books take away message was that venture capital, in particular, was too focused on software and, by moving out of other areas, was creating a divide between universities and industry.

@surya, I was reading Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America last night and this quote reminded me about your comment on free trade requiring full employment.

Friedrich List, father of the German customs union, once observed that free trade was Britain’s chief export. Nothing roused such British anger as protectionism, and they sometimes gave vent to it in violent language, as during the Opium War against China. But free trade only became revealed truth for them after they became sure of being the strongest power, and after they had developed their own textile industry under the umbrella of Europe’s toughest protectionist legislation.

sadly, yes. :frowning: surya

Open inverse grant proposals, what do you all think?

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I think this is great, we need (many) more ways of funding research. I have major hangups with the priorities of many of the solicitation agencies, so it would be nice to see meaningful alternatives arise. I suppose the question of who will pay arises, and this seems like something that would be philanthropically funded at the outset (at a smaller scale), which seems doable.

The one criticism I would point to is the sort of perpetual mythologizing of the ‘young college age genius’. I think SV in general needs to move away from this concept, particularly if the focus is to be on deep science. Awhile ago I was talking to a friend of mine who is a mathematician about the Fields medal, and they said something along the lines of ‘well yeah many of the great mathematicians won it, but many didn’t…after all you are only eligible until age 40…so in a lot of cases you’re not competing against the best mathematicians in the world’. They were of the opinion that the Abel prize was actually more prestigious/meaningful, because any mathematician was eligible (they were also of the opinion that a lot of mathematicians did their best work after 40). At the time, I had never thought of it that way, and had just assumed, largely due to watching Good Will Hunting, that the Fields medal was the penultimate of prizes.

I think even in the start up world the average age of founders is something like 45? I just think we need to put the ‘young genius’ narrative to bed (there are geniuses young and old)…and not ever wake it up again lol. :slight_smile:

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right on… :slight_smile:

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Yes, this is an excellent point! :slight_smile: I really like the concept of ‘scenius’ that Brain Eno talked about (https://www.wired.com/2008/06/scenius-or-comm/). I am reminded of it when I am thinking about communities like IGDORE and others.