Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Value of Research

Universities perform a great deal of research and much of it is funded by Government money. What value do we apply to these results? The WSJ has an interesting article which alleges it has little value. Generally I would agree. Much of University research is "training", namely training students to do research if ever they get the chance.

The author, Matt Ridley, first states:

linear model of how science drives innovation and prosperity goes right back to Francis Bacon, the early 17th-century philosopher and statesman who urged England to catch up with the Portuguese in their use of science to drive discovery and commercial gain. Supposedly Prince Henry the Navigator in the 15th century had invested heavily in mapmaking, nautical skills and navigation, which resulted in the exploration of Africa and great gains from trade. That is what Bacon wanted to copy. Yet recent scholarship has exposed this tale as a myth, or rather a piece of Prince Henry’s propaganda. Like most innovation, Portugal’s navigational advances came about by trial and error among sailors, not by speculation among astronomers and cartographers. If anything, the scientists were driven by the needs of the explorers rather than the other way around.

Most everything comes about by trial and error. Just look at Watson and Crick, at least as Watson states it.

They continue:

When you examine the history of innovation, you find, again and again, that scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause, of technological change. It is no accident that astronomy blossomed in the wake of the age of exploration. The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine. The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles. 

Indeed, being able to measure something leads to change. Suddenly having an X ray crystallography of DNA tells one that it is a helix, and a double not triple helix. Then go play with the stick model.

Finally they state:

In 2003, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published a paper on the “sources of economic growth in OECD countries” between 1971 and 1998 and found, to its surprise, that whereas privately funded research and development stimulated economic growth, publicly funded research had no economic impact whatsoever. None. This earthshaking result has never been challenged or debunked. It is so inconvenient to the argument that science needs public funding that it is ignored. In 2007, the economist Leo Sveikauskas of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that returns from many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero and that “many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all.”

My observations are somewhat upsetting but most likely correct:
1. That "organized r&d" is a total waste of time, I have been there. One needs a clear competitive product focus. I would argue that CRISPRs advances because of competition, not pure research.

2. Government funded research just sustains the Government funders not the results. All too often the funders have been assigned funds and they need boxes checked and paper written. No one ever rewards a Government employee for a breakthrough, also they never get fired for no results.

3. Publicly funded research such as NASA is almost all worthless to the economy, Tang and what else? I have been there. NASA results are at best good for NASA.

4. How do we judge or value research, by the economic advantage or by changing the way we think? I have been asked that question in prior lives. I never found anyone who had an answer. Take the Pharma world. Good research generates a profitable drug.

5. CRISPRs are now a hot topic, a tool for the genome tool kits which will have massive impact....lots of claims to parentage! Also lots of patent and start up actions. It is clear what the results could be.

6. Universities perform "research" which in reality is just "make busy work" to "train" students on how they should behave going forward, how many PhD theses really led to anything? They just allowed the faculty to see if the student would go through hoops

So for the Higgs particle, string theory, and the like, thay are training grounds to train future academics. Yet is there still a chance for some Patent Examiner in some obscure place to write three world shattering papers? Doubtful they would get published but there is now the Internet, so who cares about those Peer Reviewers anyhow!

The real question of good research is its ultimate value and that then begs the question of what do we mean by value. Consider the Human Genome Project. It was essentially a competitive venture between a Government and private entity. That worked and the result will have significant merit. I believe it speaks for itself. Then we have for example neuro research on how the brain works. That is really hard, and really hard stuff goes no where for decades and then as is often the case something pops. But it is impossible to predict just what that is.

Now consider Cancer research, namely looking for ways to stop its progression if not cure it. Pharmas do some here but they often build on what comes from others work, namely the risk takers who left Academia and started something. They may have been supported pre start up by Government post-doc work but they MUST leave that haven of sorts and start a real company. High risk and potential high return.

 The problem is that Government funding is all too often rant with political calculations. The funder wants to look good so they get someone who is already good. A cycle, But every so often we get sparks, again the genome or CRISPRs. These are real innovations, they are not Silicon Valley Apps, software that does nothing productive.

Thus somewhere between Government funding and Silicon Valley trend following is the world of real research, a game changing way to do something.