Monday, April 11, 2011

Basic Research is "Waste"

Newsflash: academic researchers don't patent as much as IBM. In a letter to Nature entitled "Scientists Should Cut Waste Too", Matthew Kumar calls on scientists to do their part in helping reduce the $1.3 trillion US budget deficit by reducing waste and inefficiency and working within their means (in this case, reduced federal funding). Of course on the surface, this doesn't sound too bad. Certainly everybody should be working to reduce waste and inefficiency. The problem is what Kumar views as "waste":
Unlike companies, non-profit academic institutions deliver a paltry return on taxpayers' investments. In 2010, after spending nearly $3.1 billion of taxpayers' money on intramural research, the NIH received $91.6 million in royalties and was issued with 134 patents. By contrast, in 2009 IBM spent $6.5 billion on research and development, generated $15.1 billion in revenue and was issued with 4,914 patents.
There's a lot to pick at here. First of all, NIH funded research versus IBM R&D? We could at least try to compare health research with health research if we want to attempt a fair comparison. Of course picking a pharmaceutical company might undermine the point. And nevermind the fact that patent production isn't necessarily the metric a non-profit academic institution would use as a measure of productivity. Or the fact that academic institutions also have other functions, like teaching the next wave of uber-productive, patent-producing scientists at for-profit companies (and the "wasteful" ones that stay in academia. But the worst part is the implication that basic research is a waste - that if you're not generating revenue or patents, it's not worth it. In my mind, Carl Sagan said it best (click the link for the full passage):
Cutting off fundamental, curiosity-driven science is like eating the seed corn. We may have a little more to eat next winter, but what will we plant so we and our children will have enough to get through the winters to come?
I wonder how productive these model companies would be without that wasteful basic research to build on.


Anonymous said...

I agree that fundamental science cannot have the kind of return a for product r&D team can have but I must emphasize that I see the types of studies being done at NIH. There is plenty of moeny being thrown out of the window. One only has to look at the constant failure of genomic promises (I am a genetic scientist) and see how some of these massivelly parallel studies were going to be a failure from the start. Scientists are bad managers and they are worst as the projects get bigger. Now you can see the pressure building as they keep sequencing a bunch of stuff with little or no return. It would dishonest not admit that. You want to fight cancer and diabetes, get americans to exercise, not to throw money at more pills.

Anonymous said...

Well, wouldn't it be nice if everyone's science magically turned into a patentable product? Yeah, I wish. It's crazy to think that my contribution to science will turn a profit (and even crazier to think that needs to turn a profit to not be wasteful!), as well as incredibly short-sighted.

And as far as the comment above me, your generalizations are not helpful. Not every scientist studies cancer or diabetes, nor can these diseases necessarily be "fixed" with exercise.

Yes, some scientists waste, but it is my hope that those individuals will learn to make the most of their precious research funds. And maybe in this economic climate, they will have to learn this lesson or face consequences.

Anonymous said...

This is the third genomic bubble, promises aren't setting proper expectations. To make this trivial and to come up with vague excuses is dishonest at best. Are you saying that massively sequencing humans will solve a lot ? As guys like Collins have said in the last 15 years ? Come on....

Michael said...

Hey I went and read the full letter after seeing just the section about IBM and patents, and Matthew Kumar made a good point in the middle paragraph of his piece that people didn't pick up on. He pointed out that University overhead rates in the US are ridiculously high (~60%) so that around 1/2 of a grant might go paying costs which, ultimately, may have been paid many times over.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point about university overhead. I'm sure there are inefficiencies.
To make a more balanced comparison IBM should have to add the cost of the publically funded R&D that they base some of their R&D on. Also how much of that R&D cost just goes to purchace patents from public institutions at a good price.