As a scientist I have found that funding is everything. To do good science you need money and lots of it. Everything is expensive. People, equipment (dear lord…), consumables, time, everything is much more expensive than pretty much anyone outside of science would think.
So how should the government decide which scientist should be funded and which shouldn’t? It’s not an easy issue and it’s one that has been debated for a long time, but it has recently ended up in the NYT and it really began to piss me off. Essentially, I believe people don’t have a realistic view of what scientific progress is: slow and steady with the occasional breakthrough. Those outside of science (and some idiots within our own ranks) seem to think that only breakthroughs are worth the money and that we should then fund all the people who think way out of the box and have radically new ideas.
However, there is a reason these people don’t get funded by governmental agencies very often. While the work COULD POTENTIALLY be high payoff, such research is characterized to be very risky. Why? This could be for any number of reasons: little background data, implausible mechanism of action, little to no experience in the field, etc. These are, in my opinion, very good reasons for not funding scientific research because the very nature of science is extremely CONSERVATIVE.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Conservative? But I thought Conservatives hated science and did everything they could to undermine it.” In that sense you’d pretty much be on point, but I’m not speaking of conservative in a political sense. Science makes slow and steady progress because by it’s very nature a lot of data must be backing a certain idea in order for it to be accepted by the scientific community. This makes it much more difficult (but not impossible) for incorrect ideas to take hold.
This is why I don’t feel bad for the researchers spotlighted in the article as being “ahead of their time” or “revolutionary” or whatever term you want to use. Take Dr. Jaffe for example. Here is a woman who has been dealing with the grant system for two and a half decades and she thinks it’s unfair that her grant was rejected out of hand because she had no preliminary data? Pardon me, but she’s a fucking moron if she actually believes that. “Of course I don’t. I need the grant money to get them [the preliminary data].” Fuck her, that’s not how funding agencies work and she knows it. She’s just trying to be the victim here.
How it really works is that you use grant money that you already have to do quick, exploratory pilot studies to see if your ideas actually have any merit. If they do then you write up a grant and include your pilot study as the preliminary data and submit it. Funding agencies will then decide if your work looks promising or not and decide your grant’s fate. But to submit a grant with insufficient (or nonexistent) preliminary data and then blame the funding agency for not giving you money is absolutely fucking ridiculous. Sure, the funding situation is far from perfect, but you know the rules so you have to play by them. If you don’t then you have no room to complain.