Monday, August 10, 2015

Science Research Funding: A Story

I was at a physics conference at the University of Michigan last week, and, sadly, I spent more time thinking about research funding than about the research itself. But it reminded me of this story of mine, which appeared in the April, 2008, issue of Analog. It's the only science fiction story I know of that hinges on the topic of research funding! That's what happens when scientists write science fiction -- you learn what really obsesses them. One of the characters is loosely based on a real person who spent time at the National Science Foundation -- those of you familiar with my own research field should be able to spot him.

Robert Scherrer

I slouched in the captain’s chair of my yacht, the “Fallow Earth,” watching seagulls on the Captiva dock spear french fries from abandoned plates outside Cap’n Al’s Restaurant.  I closed my eyes and leaned back to feel the warm Florida sunshine, then swiveled my chair to face the man from the FBI.  “So it’s a crime these days to make money?” I asked.
“Not at all, Dr. McCarthy.”  The FBI agent smiled.  “But when a government employee strikes it rich... well, questions get asked.”
“Look,” I said, “I wasn’t a government employee -- not really.  I was what they called a ‘rotator’ at the National Science Foundation –- rotated in for a couple years and then went back to Ohio State before I retired.”
“All the more reason for us to be concerned.”  The agent’s eyes flickered around the yacht.  “Someone comes in for two years, gets rich and retires.  Surely you can see—”
“OK, OK,” I said, “I get your point.  But there’s a simple explanation.  Give me ten minutes.”
“No problem.”  The agent leaned back against the sun-bleached wooden railing of my yacht and folded his arms.  “I’ve got as much time as you need.  Tell me all about it.”

I followed Mark Sanders through the stacks of the science library in the basement of NSF headquarters.  A sickly fluorescent bulb flickered overhead, and I studied the back of Mark’s head in the pale blue light.  I had known Mark since we were graduate students together –- he had slowly shed his facial hair over the decades as he climbed the administrative ladder.  He lost his beard when he became Department Chair at Princeton.  The moustache went when he became Dean.  And now that he was a Division Head at the National Science Foundation, he was starting to go bald.
Mark stopped to pull an ancient bound volume off the shelves.  He handed it to me -- Physical Review, 1937.  I riffled through the yellowed pages, which crackled and smelled of mildew.
“We’re drowning in words,” Mark said.  He gestured toward the shelves of weathered journals, which stood at attention like soldiers from some long-forgotten war.  “The number of published pages of scientific research doubles every decade.  In the 1930’s, Physical Review published a couple thousand pages a year.  By the 1990’s, it was up to 70,000 pages, and it’s still climbing.” 
“Who cares, Mark?  Nobody uses libraries anymore.”  I slammed shut the journal and glanced around. “Geez, this place is deserted – you could grow mushrooms down here.  Everything’s online now.”
“And that just makes the problem worse,” said Mark.  “Now we have to sort through gigabytes of digital drivel to find anything of importance.”
“Hey, don’t blame me.”  I pointed the spine of the Physical Review volume at Mark.   “You NSF guys started it.  You gave money to people for publishing a lot of papers, and so they did.  Big surprise, eh?”
“I know, and now I want to control the problem,” said Mark.  “I brought you here as ‘Assistant for Special Projects’.  Now I’ve got a special project.”
               I dropped the physics journal, which landed on my foot with a soft thud.  “Ouch!  Mark, wait a minute.  It’s been a good year.  My family’s enjoyed all the Washington sightseeing, but I didn’t think you’d actually want me to do something at the NSF.  I have to keep my research program going, you know.”
“Cut the crap, George. I know for a fact that you haven’t published a worthwhile physics paper in five years.  It’s time to earn your pay here.”
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” I said.
“Then look around Washington.  Check out the other agencies.  See if anyone has dealt with a similar problem.”  Mark turned the corner at the end of the bookshelf, then peered back at me.  “And don’t forget to turn out the lights.”

“Well, what have you got to show me?” asked Mark, sliding a paper deftly into his “out” box.  “And what’s in that bag you’re holding?”
I dropped the brown paper bag onto a stack of papers on Mark’s desk.  “I did just what you said.  It was the Department of Agriculture that gave me the idea.” I reached into the bag and pulled out three potatoes, flaking dirt onto the desk.
 Mark leaned over his desk and brushed the dirt onto the floor.  “Potatoes, George?  What the heck –-”
“Let’s say farmers are growing too many potatoes.  That drives prices down, which is bad for everyone.  So Agriculture pays the farmers not to grow potatoes.”  I dropped two of the potatoes back into my bag. “We’ve got the same problem –- we pay people to write science papers, and they write too many.  Let’s pay them not to write.”
Mark shook his head.  “Whoa, we’re not trying to get rid of all scientific research, just the bad stuff.”
“Exactly.  So we don’t pay the good scientists to stop doing research.  But when we get a mediocre proposal, we fund them to publish a little bit less for a few years.  The worse the proposal, the more we ask them to cut back on their publication rate, and the more we compensate them.  Maybe we could even automate the review process.”
Mike stroked his non-existent beard, then realized it was gone and pulled his hand away.  “Let me think about it.”

The FBI agent shook his head.  “Look, I know that the NSF eventually implemented your idea, but this is the government we’re talking about, not Microsoft.  Washington doesn’t pay huge bonuses for coming up with clever ideas.”
I nodded.  “You’re right, but that’s not the end of the story.”  I went into the cabin and pulled out an envelope with the hands-around-the-world NSF logo on the front.  “I’ve saved this as a memento.  Read it.”
The FBI agent slipped the letter from the envelope, unfolded it, and began reading aloud.  “Dear Dr. McCarthy:  Thank you for your proposal DMR-0808516.  I am happy to inform you that your proposal will be funded for $21,750,000.  You are asked to refrain from publishing any scientific papers for the next 3137 years.”

1 comment:

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