Allocating research funds v. allocating measurement resources

Science works on peer review. But not everything scientists do is science. Sometimes a study that advances science not at all is worth doing for economic and political reasons, and in those cases the decision ought to be subject to economic and political, not merely scientific, input.

Mike O’Hare is right: as a means of allocating research funds, the peer-review process, with all its many flaws, kicks the crap out of hiring lobbyists to ask for earmarks. And he’s also right that when ignorami* such as John McCain and the late William Proxmire start making fun of the titles of scientific studies, the rest of us should in turn make fun of them, and rude remarks about their ancestry.

However, the peer review process is designed to pick out projects most likely to advance science by testing new theories or developing new means of measurement. [Fn. In theory. Often in practice. Maybe not now, with finds as tight as they are. Details here. But much of the work scientists do isn’t about advancing science; it’s about determining some state of the world or estimating the parameters of the relationships among some set of variables, and its purpose is to guide action rather than merely to advance knowledge.

For example, a study of the range of genetic variation in some species occupying some range might be of no scientific interest whatever, but be vital in deciding how much habitat protection that species needed to avoid extinction. The decision about which of those studies to undertake is properly economic and political, rather than purely scientific. I’m with Mike in thinking that bureaucrats rather than elected officials are usually the right decision-makers about such matters, but “Measure the DNA of these bears so we know whether we can safely log here” is just as reasonable a request for a Congressman to make as “Build levees to protect this town.”

Footnote “Prox” gave one of his Golden Fleece awards to a project on “the impact of halocarbons on certain trace constituents of the stratosphere” (I quote from memory). The Senator remarked half-wittily, “The only word I understand in this proposal is ‘constituents’.” Some years later, the same research was mentioned in connection with another sort of award, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; it was, in fact, the original Rowland and Molina study on freon as a cause of ozone depletion.

* Yes, I know that “ignorami” is not actually the plural of “ignoramus.” But it ought to be, dammit.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: