A false and sentimental glow surrounds science in the minds of many outside the science world. A reverent belief in the purity of scientists, so tender and mild (except for those intelligent-design scoundrels), is a badge of membership for the enlightened. The cult of science all but denies that professionals in the field are human beings, subject to the familiar corruptions that go with money, power, and prestige.
But then occasionally a scientist or other insider will come along and dash a pitcher of cold water on all that. A letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal by Professor Daniel Metz is thus refreshing. He replies to an op-ed by MIT president L. Rafael Reif, who laments what Reif sees as the underfunding of basic science.
Interesting guy — Metz retired as a professor of General Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and now races cars among other pursuits. Writes Dr. Metz:
Mr. Reif ignores some facts associated with government funding of research, much of which is funded at universities. Nearly all government-sponsored projects are funded in response to a request for proposals (RFPs). The directions of funded research are thus established not by scientists, but by bureaucrats in the funding agencies. The bureaucrats are graduates of an old-boy network that rewards alumni, contacts, trendism and longevity, with proposal quality coming dead last. It is positively guaranteed that any big, new, government research initiative will send money to Palo Alto, Berkeley, Austin, Ann Arbor, Madison, Champaign and Cambridge.
Government funding of university research has bastardized the definition of a “professor.” New assistant professors are quick to realize that actually teaching classes has nothing whatsoever to do with their desire for long-term success and tenure, and in fact teaching is a disincentive. Only bringing in outside research money counts. Universities have become addicted to the mother’s milk of government funding. Any major research university could reduce its budget by 50% or more simply by requiring the faculty to actually teach a few classes now and then.
Em. Prof. L. Daniel Metz
Indeed, the incestuous world of science grants is one of the best-kept secrets of the Federal Government. Billions of dollars are involved and Congressional oversight is unimpressive. Moreover, the system is so big that it effectively shapes research priorities of universities, rather than responding to them. The Federal Government controls and monopolizes science research, and the whole business is in the service of something quite other than the legendary disinterested search for truth.
Addicted and engorged, Big Science isn’t what most of the public pictures it to be. Professors don’t so much profess — they suck money as through a straw, thanks to a system that epitomizes the kinds of corruption we associate with government. Now give them more funding? Come to think of it, Rafael Reif is not exactly disinterested on the subject.
Among all the reasons to doubt the authority of a scientific consensus on all matters, this would be one.