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Fungible funding September 3, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I was reading a discussion the other day on funding sources when it occurred to me that I’ve made a big switch on the topic.  I used to think that industry funded research was *always* bad, *always* biased.


I guess being in engineering has changed my view considerably.  A lot of engineering work is funded by industry, and this is a good thing.  First, it means that the research actually has a chance of getting used.  Second, it is helpful to the majority of researchers that are likely unable to get any funding from large governmental funding agencies.

In engineering, a lot of the conferences I’ve gone to have had large numbers of researchers from industry.  (In a couple sub-fields I’m involved in, *most* of the people come from industry.)  Those fields are the “too applied for NSF” type work that is still rather interesting and useful.  Without companies funding some of their own research, they probably wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Despite my great appreciation of the system we have for government funding, it is still very limited.  And even when things are funded, I’m not sure how many of these concepts actually make it to industry.

Now, looking at science from this engineering-informed background, I’m not as suspicious about industry-funded projects.  Admittedly, science has a different approach than engineering, but I wonder how many areas are being underfunded.  There are far more good ideas and questions to be answered than funding available.  Is it better to let a question sit unanswered or to try to work with an industry partner to do some type of study?  Just about every university will have a conflict-of-interest policy.  While these aren’t bulletproof, I would assume they’re going to hit some of the basics.  And maybe, just maybe, researchers really want to find the answers to their questions no matter how they get the funding.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be skeptical when research is funded by industry…but neither should we just write it off as biased.


Permanent position April 24, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, research, science.
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The other day, I was talking with a professor who was asking about my employment situation.  After clarifying where I was at, he said, “But your husband has a permanent position, right?”

“Permanent insofar as he’s on soft money, too.”

One thing that’s become fairly obvious is that there has been a bit of confusion about our research center.  A lot of people don’t realize we run entirely on soft money, which is a very uncomfortable situation to be in.  It’s even more uncomfortable when both members of a couple are in that situation.

I recently read this article about the money trail in academia, and it got me thinking: what would happen if PIs were in the same situation as some of the rest of us.  That is, what if they not only had no tenure, but also had to bring in their own salary?  (I say this is the realization that, in some places, this is the case.)

I have a lot of thoughts on what may happen, but I’m going to put them in a separate post.  In fact, by the time this post has been published, I will already have my post written so as to be untainted by potential comments.  In the meantime, however, I’m curious what you think.  Do you think this sort of system would help or hurt academia?  Encourage or discourage competition, quality, efficiency?  Do you think this would motivate the system to change or would it just be more of the same?

Free Market != Sophisticated Healthcare February 2, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science, societal commentary.
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The older boy knows someone who, on his blog, posted a link to information about a very sophisticated and cool medical widget. Then this person turned around and said something to the effect of, “Innovations like this are why we need to keep healthcare private.” I bet the older boy that 1) this device was developed at a university, probably state-funded and 2) the development of the device was probably done with some sort of federal funding.

I wish I’d made the bet for cash. It turns out that after asking the internet, I was right: state funded university with department of defense grantitude.

I was rather blown away that someone would make such an obvious mistake. But then, I’m a scientist and an engineer who knows people both in industry and academia. I’m probably more familiar with the process of technical innovation than the average joe. (In fact, I’m probably going to be discussing that Friday on http://engineerblogs.org.)

There are a lot of people that have misconceptions about what real scientist is or does. My guess is, that most people, when they hear the word scientist, think of the following:

(As a huge tangent, my ex-husband’s last name was Brown, and I was very reluctant to change my last name after we divorced. I wanted very badly for people to call me “Doc Brown” once I earned my PhD.)

Back to the present, we all know and love the stereotypical mad scientist: he (always a he) toils away in his basement to create some amazing gadget that will miraculously change the way human beings interact with their world. Bonus points for crazy hair.

Unfortunately, this is a very naive and pretty remote possibility. Since World War II, scientific research has been recognized as being something that our country can and should invest in order to put us “ahead of the game”. Serious science research, whether it is paradigm shifting or not, can seldom be done in the basement or garage. There is seldom “low hanging fruit” such that research doesn’t require a significant investment of time, money, personnel, and capital equipment.

Probably with the exception of electronics, which is riding a huge wave of capitalistic materialism, many of the things that have enhanced our standard of living over the past few decades has been the investment of public money into public institutions. This is especially true with health and medicine. Free market healthcare may make it easier to get access to things like MRI, but much of the initial research into medical technology comes from federal and state governments. Think about it: many of the most advanced, cutting edge medical research is done at hospitals with university medical school affiliations.

It is depressing to see that the US, especially the newly elected republican congress critters, are trying to drastically cut federal research funding while places like China doing exactly the opposite. Believe it or not, I’ve already heard about researchers going to China to do their work because they’re finding it easier to get funding and equipment time. China has seen that investment in science works, so they’re following suit. They’re being a lot smarter than we are.

I remember in the 80s (yeah, I’m that old) when everyone was so impressed that Tang was something that NASA developed. In fact, NASA is still making efforts to let people know how the organization benefits them. However, as obvious as it may seem to those of us in science, the average person may not really have a clue how important NSF, NIH, and other funding organizations are to both economic and technological leadership. It almost seems like, if they could afford it, these institutions need to be banging their own drum a bit louder, letting people know how important they are to everyday life.

But sadly, the reality is that most people don’t know or don’t care about where all our modern conveniences come from. They keep being told that the “free market” is what makes it all possible and that government spending is wasteful and useless. They believe it, and so they don’t realize how badly we as a nation are shooting ourselves in the foot if we fail to maintain or increase spending in research of all stripes.

Next time you see a gadget and think that it’s an example of what makes the United States a great nation, try to remember that there’s a good chance that gadget had some of its origins in public funding. By trying to end such funding, we are destroying our scientific and technological legacy.

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