Science: A Long-term Investment

contract

This is part of a series of posts describing science in terms of a new social contract with clauses and expectations of both scientists and society. The links for all of the posts so far can be found on the ‘highlights’ page. So if you are interested, start there to get the complete contract.

In my original post about a new social contract for science and society, I didn’t go into too many practical details as to how to make these terms work for all of us. So let’s dig a little deeper on the investment clause…

“You will understand that this joint endeavor requires a long-term investment of significant resources- time, money, and people; we will be accountable for those resources. “

Some science explicitly falls under a traditional investment model. In industry, the research and development sectors of companies offering science-based innovation follow certain principles in order to stay in business. These companies must focus their scientific efforts with their customers, shareholders and bottom-lines ever in view. In many ways, basic research should adhere to the same guiding principles, but the timescale is significantly different, the ‘company’ is less organized, and the ‘products’ seem more nebulous. Despite these differences, basic scientific research should also be treated like an investment.

While some innovations occur in a flash and their applications take hold quickly, the true benefits of science occur in smaller increments over much longer timescales. The problems of chronic diseases affecting human health, sustainable energy supply, adequate agricultural production, and ecological protection are large problems. The solutions to these issues will not come overnight; the transformative science required to address these issues takes many people working together for decades. This is in stark contrast to the rest of society in this age of instant information, fleeting media cycles with their thirty-second sound bites and short political and electoral cycles. These diametrically opposed trends must find reconciliation with one another for meaningful scientific progress to occur over the coming years. Science is getting faster and more applicable, but society must also be patient and less fickle with their support.

Just like a monetary account, investment that is steady over a long duration offers the best returns. There’s always a chance you could go to the casino with $5K the week before you retire and win enough to cover your living expenses for another twenty years, but the probability is low*. A much better strategy would be to add to an account at a slow and steady pace and let compounding interest work in your favor. Science is much the same way. Society is facing problems with finite time restrictions (I’ve mentioned previously that scientists have been keeping track of some worrying numbers). To more effectively solve the problems or at least offer more attractive solutions, a steady investment in science must be made before problems are imminent. Eventually, it will not matter how much money and how many people you throw at a problem because the buzzer has already gone off. Game over. Thanks for playing.

Like any good long-term investment portfolio, science needs to be diversified. We need scientists working in all fields (even on things you may find absurd, as mentioned previously). There should be a good mix of projects that are currently giving high returns as well as those projects that are consistently yielding reliable, smaller returns in areas that will always be beneficial. Your role as an investor is to make sure that your brokerage companies are providing you with diversified investment strategies. As daunting as it may seem to have a one-on-one conversation with your financial advisor, it usually works to your benefit. In the same way, feel free to make your voice heard to your elected officials, program managers or non-profit funding boards that control the directions of your monetary contributions to the scientific research enterprise. Many of us need to make decisions today to make sure we will have enough money for life after retirement. The decisions affecting your science portfolio are no different, and, as mentioned above, the deadlines are looming; let’s make sure we have invested enough in science to ‘retire’ in peace.

The ‘scientific system’ we have now is performing well at training scientists in diverse fields at high levels. Let’s just make sure that this resource is being used to its fullest potential. Some scientists transition out of this training system into the industry sector where their employment and their research are intimately linked to providing customers with useful products and services. Other scientists stay closer to basic research within academia and governmental labs, which are dependent upon federal and state funding. The health of the broader economy affects all of these scientists, but because basic research is inherently further-removed from everyday applications, it ends up on the chopping block when cuts must be made.

Do not think that this post is just a request for a blank check for basic scientific research. More money will not magically fix the problems of the science enterprise, but it should be approached as an investment and instead of a charity. We expect to be held accountable. Scientists must submit financial reports as to where their research money is being spent- salaries, supplies, equipment, travel, etc. are all documented for each award. Our publications, websites, outreach projects and grant proposals comprise our prospectus to you, our potential investors. The federal granting agencies and non-profit organizations function equivalently to major trading brokerage firms in the financial sector. They do the research on us and make informed decisions about investing your money. The more recent attempts at crowd-funding science with direct investors represent the do-it-yourself trading programs in this analogy. Finally, like any financial investment, scientists would ultimately like to pay dividends to their shareholders. Our discoveries should lead to technologies that will improve your daily life.

Ideals always look good in print, but in practice things seem to fall apart. It’s the difference between stating in conversation that you support Cause ABC compared to actually donating your money or volunteering your time for it. As far as science goes, the current system is doing a good job creating a pipeline full of capable hands and creative minds. Time is running dangerously short for some of our critical societal problems, and that is a variable we can do little to extend. Providing financial resources is always divisive because within a budget money is finite** and allocating more funds to one area means less for another area. If you are looking for bottom-line numbers on the dollars I’m talking about when it comes to significant, steady resources, check back for tomorrow’s post. All of society must grapple with these issues and the consequences of their decisions. Scientists just want to make a pitch to their investors- you. Let us prove we are a good investment.

Johnna

* I am not a financial advisor. Regardless do no use this as a retirement strategy, but do start saving now and talk to Chuck or ING or Fidelity etc.

**I know there are some economists and politicians that may disagree with me on the subject of how budgets work with respect to finite resources. However, in a closed system, I’m sure the laws of thermodynamics will bear me out on this one.

UPDATE: Here’s a recent article from Science about funding research. What’s so special about science (and how much should we be spending on it)?

“Our message is that science is a single, unified, long-term enterprise in which basic science discoveries, and research accomplishments of applied science and engineering, are things to be admired in their own right that also, often unpredictably, lead to better jobs and better lives, new products and new industries.”

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One thought on “Science: A Long-term Investment

  1. Pingback: It’s all about the money: Research Spending | New Under The Sun Blog

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