Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Science: Learning and Funding

In my Utopian world people would be interested in knowledge for it's own sake. People would want to understand the world we live in. People would gather information and then share it freely with others so that we all could learn. In reality things are not that simple. I have worked in several different environments (mostly dealing with environmental research in one form or another) and I have seen research and funding pan out in a few different ways.

Disclaimer: Everything here is a generalization. It does not apply to every company. It does not necessarily apply to companies I have worked for or currently work for.

The start up company. Start up companies rise and fall all the time. And often they don't have much to work with. Small staff running off one crazy idea that just might work. Companies, especially start up companies, need to jealously guard their intellectual property. All scientific findings need to be under lock and key. There is no sharing of information, no learning what other people know that could make your job easier. Even after a company folds they often hold on to their intellectual property so no one can ever learn from their mistakes. There is also a tendency to over sell what you do have. Not to give any details of course but to state that your product IS the solution. Without releasing details you don't need to show any data to back it up. Looking for investors is key and investors just want to know that their investment is going to pay off.

Industry.
I am talking about larger, more established companies. They have a product and a reputation to protect. Start up companies that succeed can make it to this stage. Their data is fact checked and regulated but they still want to protect their intellectual property. They don't want to share enough information that their product can be replicated. The bigger companies even have access to lobbyists who can protect their interests in Washington. Some companies have been accused of manipulating data to make their product seem safer or more effective. It is all about the bottom line.


Government.
I mean federal and state agencies. Not to be confused with academia which I will get into in a minute. Government organizations are often obligated to share their data. They are funded by tax payers and are usually trying to protect some resource the community finds valuable such as water or agriculture. We live in a time when government science funding is being cut and agencies do not always have the money or the staff to be as thorough as they might like. Not that they don't adhere to strict standards but that they can't always gather all the data or monitor as much as they would like. Sometimes government research is motivated or influenced by government agendas and research that doesn't follow these agendas is quick to be cut.

Academia. A lot of academics do share my goal of learning about the world and sharing the knowledge but it isn't that easy. With government science funding cut it is getting harder and harder to get grants to do research. It is often easier to get funding for projects that play into a certain political agenda. Even then papers can be rejected from being published if they do not fit into the narrative that a big corporation or government is trying to sell. When things are published they are usually put behind paywalls so only individuals who are associated with a university or scientifically oriented company or agency are able to access them.

None of these companies like to make their failures public. Why would they? But science is about failure. It is about trying new things and a lot of the time they don't work. If we could talk about what didn't go well we could save others from repeating our mistakes. Instead we can just watch people take on doomed projects and not say a word.

My overall point is that modern science isn't really just based on learning about the world and sharing that information with others. It is also about agenda and profit. To some extent this is fair because science costs money and that money needs to come from somewhere. Someone has to be willing to foot the bill. I still wonder if there might be a better way. But until knowledge is valued this might be the best we can get. I just think it could be easier for all of us if we can at least be open about what we have learned so we can all advance together.

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