We regret to inform you…Part II.

In an earlier part of this blog I was bemoaning the difficulties of getting funded to carry out research. It’s the most common challenge for all scientists.

One obvious solution, is for there to be more funding available; however, federal funding for science not related to defense has remained largely flat for nearly a decade now, 2015 was the first significant uptick for a number of the agencies, like the National Institutes of Health and NASA, that fund basic science. Given the great recession we’ve recently gone through, it seems logical that science should, like all federal spending, share some of the pain. I say it seems logical, because there are well-known and not so well-known (outside Maine’s mid-coast) economists who argue it is basic economics that during a recession the federal government take up some of the slack in the economy by spending more on things like roads, bridges, and the scientific research that maintains our technology-driven economy.

Of course, economics is a science where it seems even the most fundamental principles are argued over, to the degree that it would seem perfectly logical that if two economists jumped off a thirty story building, one of them would fall to the ground, steadily gaining momentum at 32ft per second per second until reaching terminal velocity (or the pavement), while the other would float up into the sky propelled by his waving hands. Of course, it’s also possible that that particular economist was just riding an updraft of political hot air.

Okay, enough fun at another science’s expense, let’s get back to the expense of doing science. It’s not cheap. It’s a bit of an irony that science doesn’t get cheaper, since we are constantly developing ways to generate more and more data. Of course generating more data often takes better instruments that can weigh the mass of an atom with greater and greater precision or sequence more and more DNA. There’s a general rule that these instruments cost more and more money. If I put in a grant proposal that proposes to use ‘old-fashioned’, but cheap technology, I’ll almost certainly be at a disadvantage to someone who proposes to use some flashy new technology, to answer a similar question. Fortunately, there are some flashy new technologies that might make things cheaper. For example, we are testing a new sequencing technology that could make the sequencing of DNA cheaper, faster, and more efficient. Since quite a lot of my research money goes to sequencing this could make for a place to save money, but it probably won’t.

A next next generation DNA sequencer we are testing. This sequencer is about three inches long. It plugs into a laptop computer and reads the DNA sequence directly to the computer.

A next next generation DNA sequencer we are testing. This sequence is about the size of an old computer thumb-drive. It plugs into a laptop computer and reads the DNA sequence directly to the computer.

What it will do is allow us to generate more data. Looking at this from an economic perspective is also interesting. An important economic indicator is productivity. Productivity is measured as the output per worker, often expressed as dollars of revenue generated per worker. Generally, if productivity is increasing: the economy is doing better. In science, an important measure of productivity is the amount of data generated per research dollar spent. I haven’t actually seen numbers for this, but my assumption is that by this measure, scientific productivity is increasing incredibly rapidly. For example, back in the 1980’s when I was a graduate student, a Ph.D student might have sequenced a few hundred base pairs of DNA as an important part of their 6-year long Ph.D thesis. This summer we will have an undergraduate intern work in the lab for 10 weeks, and the assumption is that this person will sequence several tens of millions of base pairs of DNA as part of their project. The intern will not earn 10 Ph.D’s during these 10 weeks. Still it shows that in terms of productivity science is a good return on investment.

One worrying thing is that with so much good work to fund, it will be natural to pick the winners from those things that everyone knows, this will leave out work that is closer to the margins. The problem with this is that the next big discovery could come from what today is at the margins.

I could go on and on moaning about lack of money for science and costs of doing research. If you get a group of scientists together, it’s the one common negative topic that can dominate a conversation. It’s a problem that won’t go away, and probably shouldn’t entirely, but it sure would be nice to see the current downward trend right itself.

We’ve just passed another year’s tax deadline, when we send money to the government, about 2 1/2 pennies of your tax dollar will go to support all the nation’s research and development. That doesn’t seem like such a big investment in our technology driven world.

David Emerson

About David Emerson

David Emerson is a professional scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies bacteria that live literally between a rock and a hard place. The views expressed here are his alone.