Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In defense of "wasteful" science

Several times a year, news stories come out about how the government is "wasting" money on science projects that are "stupid." I'll admit, at first glance, these projects can seem silly, and perhaps some of them are. But many aren't. Let's look a little closer.

Last week, news came out on a $423,500 study funded by the National Institutes of Health on "why men don't like to wear condoms." Sounds like a lot of money, and it sounds like a question many people think they know the answer to. So, why should we spend money studying it? Here are a few points I think are relevant and should be considered whenever we feel like railing against specific scientific projects:

Consider a cost-benefit analysis. Sexually-transmitted diseases, NOT including HIV/AIDS, cost Americans $10 billion every year. In comparison, this study costs $0.0004235 billion. If the results of this study can just decrease the incidence of STDs by 0.04%, an insignificant and probably undetectable drop, then it pays for itself. If it can cause a borderline significant drop of a percent, then it pays for itself 25 times over. I've also heard complaints about "wasteful" spending on science like studies of wildflowers and weeds, yet understanding their biology can lead to better (more productive, cheaper, lower-chemical) agriculture; again, this can be a many-fold benefit in cost.

The questions posed in "wasteful" science are often deceptively simple. There are many deeper underlying issues that not only impact public health, but also could impact broader areas of health and behavioral science. Why do people engage in risky behavior? Is it a lack of education about the risks? Is it a misperception by the man about the level of risk? What fraction of people consider the costs (not just health costs, but potential child support costs and other potential costs of the behavior)? And why does the brain so often lead us to overrule significant risks for short term pleasure? I'd argue that none of these questions have easy answers, and yet they all have implications far beyond this study.

Summaries of projects are usually dumbed-down. When we propose for funding from a federal agency, we are supposed to provide a title and short abstract that are understandable to non-specialists. Most of us (myself included) are pretty lousy at writing good abstracts, and overly-simplified descriptions of the experiments are presented, and the important underlying issues being studied are often forgotten or downplayed because we consider them "too complex" do describe in 250 words or less.

People cost money. A lot of money. Most of the costs of a grant go to paying for people (exceptions being grants that are used to pay for labs or equipment; in astronomy these tend to be different pots of money). Let me price out a generic research project, a three-year study of some really cool bit of astronomy.

  • The primary investigator is likely a faculty member; universities tend to pay 9 months of salary, and we have to cover the rest out of grants. Our grants also have to cover our own costs of benefits. Let's say that Professor Y earns $75k over 12 months with a benefits rate of 30%. 3 months of salary is $18750, benefits are $5625; multiply that by the 3-year duration, and the cost comes to $73125.
  • Let's add on a postdoc, who will do most of the research. Let's pay her $45k/year. Over three years, and including 30% benefits, that comes to $175500.
  • Let's pay for a grad student, too. A grad student will make about $25k in salary (I'm going to pay her well over the summer), plus 30% benefits, plus tuition costs (this is a state university, so tuition is roughly $10k/yr, including summer tuition). Total cost, $136500.
  • Ooh, shall we add an undergrad? They're cheap, we only have to pay him summer salary plus benefits. Let's see, $10/hr, 40 hrs a week, 8 weeks of summer, plus benefits comes to $12480 over three years.
  • Okay, now travel and publications. Let's say that the faculty, postdoc, and grad student go to one domestic and one foreign trip each every year. These can be conferences or observing runs. And let's force them to travel dirt cheap. That's about $1500 per domestic trip, and $2500 per foreign trip, so $36k over 3 years. We have to pay to publish our papers. Let's say one paper a year, 10 pages for a paper, at a cost of $125 a page. That's pretty standard. $3750.
  • Subtotal: $437355.
  • Overhead. Universities and research institutes take a cut of every expenditure; this is called overhead; it's like a tax. Typical rates can run from 50% (for every dollar I spend, the University takes $0.50 for their own use) to 100% or even 150%. This money goes to pay administrative salaries, pays for electricity and internet, water, janitorial staff, etc. Overhead is used to help keep tuition down, so it's a necessary evil. Not all costs are charged overhead, but what is charged varies from place to place. To make this easy for me to calculate, let's say overhead is a lower-than-normal 35%, but covers everything. Overhead costs are therefore $437355 x 0.35 = $153074.
  • Grand Total: $590429
In short, a typical, not-too-extravagant three-year research project is going to cost over $500k; this one costs $600k. That's just the way it goes. The condom research project is $430k over two years, akin to $645k over three years. That cost doesn't sound unusual or unreasonable.

Put things in perspective. The president's 2010 budget projects a deficit of $1.258 trillion dollars. If we eliminated this "wasteful" project on male condom use, then the budget deficit would be $1.25799966 trillion. The proposed budget in 2010 for the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation is roughly $40 billion. If we fully eliminate the NIH and the NSF from the federal budget, then the deficit will drop to $1.218 trillion. That's a minuscule change.

Funding proposals are generally quite rigorous and almost always thoroughly reviewed. I can't just go to the NSF and give them a 30-second pitch for a half million dollars. Good proposals take months to prepare, are often dozens of pages long, and are reviewed by a committee of experts that are carefully screened to remove friends and colleagues of the proposer. Proposals are judged on their scientific merits and weighed against other proposals form competing teams. Only about a quarter of astronomy proposals get a single penny. I suspect that things are at least as difficult in the medical sciences. In short, I can't come up with any dumb idea and get money thrown at me. I have to convince people that what I want to do is important, likely to succeed, and a good cost value. Yes, it may sometimes be possible to pull the wool over a committee's eyes or make end runs around the process (such as with a Congressional earmark), but this is actually quite rare and frowned upon.

There are things that we scientists need to do better. We must do a better job relating our science to the general public. Many scientists are not great communicators, but there are some excellent educators among us. We should hire them (adding another month's salary to our grant costs) and have them help us with public outreach. The taxpayer has a right to know what we are doing with their money, and deserves a better explanation than what we (myself included) often provide. We also need to make sure that we are keeping costs as low as possible. Many scientists do this; I know several who forgo summer salary or accept reduced salary in order to cut costs, even in good economic times. With some hardships, we can probably cut costs on publishing and travel. But the largest expense in many research grants remains salary, and it is really hard to bring that down. We also need to make our review process as thorough and transparent as we can. I know that the NSF works hard on this point; perhaps we need to spend some money educating the public on how we hold ourselves accountable to strict scientific standards.

So, the next time you see a news story lambasting a scientist for some wasteful-sounding project, think critically about it. Think about the deeper issues the science may actually be addressing. Scientific research is always far more complex than a three-sentence summary that has been digested by the press. This doesn't mean that there isn't waste, and it doesn't mean that every project that receives funding is actually worthwhile. But given the discipline and checks and balances involved in obtaining a grant, the scientist deserves at least a little respect and consideration, certainly more than a fraction of one newspaper column of facts skimmed from an abstract and a couple of 1-sentence quotes from the two sides of the argument.

1 comment:

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    Bangladesh Astronomical Association