The Problem is the Science

The University has been the engine of basic science in the US and abroad for a long time. Any hand-wringing in recent years over its imminent obsolescence was borne of advances in remote learning and new found capacities to exponentially scale single instructors to reach tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students across the globe. How, in this brave-ish new world, would matriculant tuition accruing to a handful of instructional specialists/celebrities continue to subsidize the scientific mission?

If the arrival of YouTube and Khan Academy gave credence to the academic apocalypse theory, then the coronavirus pandemic and the global adoption of Zoom instruction would surely make a reality of it. I will admit, for the first time in my career, I’m seeing the cracks in the edifice of the academy. And, yes, it was the pandemic that made them more prominent to me.

But its not on the educational side of our dual mission. It’s the science.

Dr. Katalin Kariko is very likely to win a Nobel prize for her immense contributions to our understanding of messenger RNA (mRNA) and how it can be manipulated to create an entirely new class of vaccines that, it is not hyperbole to say, stand to offer a global shift in health. The prospect is there for not just an HIV vaccine, or a broad-spectrum influenza vaccine, or a malaria vaccine, but the broad mitigation of viruses as a burden on humanity.

Dr. Kariko has been pursuing her scientific mission with a single-mindedness that jumps off the page in everything that has been written about her. What also jumps off the page, at least to those of use who have been trying make a career in academic research, is the university system that has worked diligently for decades to push Dr. Kariko, and her scientific mission, out of the academy. At every stage of the hiring, retention, and grant application process, Dr. Kariko’s research has been bludgeoned with not so much criticism or doubt, but what seems more like horrifying indifference. Grant reviewers saw little value, her colleagues noted that she lacked finesse in writing grant applications, and the academic institutions that employed her saw little value in employing someone, even for less than $60k a year in salary, that was unable to consistently bring in large grants (sidenote: her husband often estimated her effective wage to be roughly a dollar an hour: from the university’s point of view, it wasn’t the expense she represented on the balance sheet, it was the opportunity cost of the grants she wasn’t winning that someone else in her slot would).

This is a problem.

To be clear, this indifference is far more damning than any sort of broad disagreement would have been. The nature of science is such that most advances are incremental, but every now and then there are the rare revolutionary upheavals, where something we thought we absolutely knew for sure turns out to be completely wrong. That scientific mavericks that push such theories, most of which are completely wrong, meet resistance is natural (and probably optimal). But indifference is a problem, because indifference does more to reveal the underlying incentives propelling researchers. Universities were indifferent to her research because it wasn’t generating grant money, and that is the job she was hired to do.

Patents are great. Prestigious awards are welcome. Published papers are not entirely a waste of your time. But make no mistake, if you don’t successfully apply for grants, your days in academic science are numbered. I spent three years as an oddly appointed economist in arguably the greatest medical school of the last decade. I got to hang around brilliant physicians who spent a lot of their time every week actually (not figuratively or indirectly) saving lives. I also witnessed dedicated researchers break down into tears upon receiving the news that their grant application had been denied, which meant their contract with the university would not be renewed and their research career effectively terminated. I saw how little grant application aptitude correlated with talent or passion. I saw people thrive in system while others failed, with little in the way of scientific aptitude to distinguish them.

The most practical advice I was privy to was this: work in someone’s lab, pursue your project in parallel with their resources. Once you have an advance that would be worthy of a grant application, write up the application for a project you‘ve already completed. List your previous PI as a collaborator, promise exactly the results you already have, describe your budget, schedule, and proposed outputs in shocking detail, and then radically oversell the importance of the discovery. Once you win the grant, use that money to pursue your next project while writing up the outcome of your previous one. Once you have results, apply for yet another retrospective funding grant, and continue to daisy chain that until you win a massive grant, a coveted NIH R-1 perhaps, within which you can bundle a series of projects, hiring as many post-docs and early researchers as you can. You will then manage this team who will execute your research while hopefully starting their own retrospective grant application daisy chains. Is this a common strategy? I don’t know – it seems odd that the dates of human subjects testing could be obscured. But the point was made to me – this isn’t about science, this is a career life-or-death game where only the 20% of applicants are funded.

To be honest, I don’t care that people are gaming funding institutions. And, to be clear, “playing the game” is part of any career, no matter how idealistic you want to be. Academic research science is in deep, deep trouble, however, if grant application gamesmanship dominates scientific ingenuity in the talent acquisition and retention strategies of major universities. It means we’re no longer scientists, we’re rent-seekers. We’re the person in the village best at memorizing Mao’s Little Red Book: smart, talented, but in the end wasted. Or, much worse, we’re just poseurs.

Piecing together what I’ve read in articles and her Wikipedia entry, after Penn demoted her to adjunct status, Dr. Kakri found a home at BioNTech in 2013, where they and other biotech firms saw tremendous value in her work, yada yada yada, her research with Draw Weissman saved millions of lives going forward and maybe just the whole damn world.

Two takeaways:

  1. If Penn, after demoting her to being an adjunct, tries to claim her and her work as their own we riot.
  2. What is the marginal value of university research if all we’re producing is grant applications?

Part of the blame, of course, has to be placed at the door of the NIH and NSF grant application review process. But how much longer are they going to matter either?

  1. 2021 NSF Budget: $8.5 Billion
  2. 2021 NIH Budget: $43 Billion
  3. Tesla Market Cap: $650 Billion
  4. Elon Musk net worth: $167 Billion

The whole point of the NSF, NIH, and the academic research project is the production of the public good that is basic science. Absent private profit incentives, they should be able to pursue the big picture project that are too broad in application for private companies and the high risk-high reward projects that are or venture too risky even for venture capital.

The advantages of government agencies, however, are limited if they are overwhelmingly surpassed in scale by private market science. Even if 99% of firms can’t overcome the public goods problem, the 1% (ironically within public economics what would be referred to as “privileged groups”) of firms that stand to profit from advancing basic science have the scale to execute such ambitions. More importantly, however, they may also have better incentives. Yes, they are greedily trying to make a profit off of their innovations, but at least the innovation remains their goal.

I’m not worried about the value of university professors as educators. It turns out that education doesn’t scale as well as we thought. That there is tremendous value to be in a room together when you’re trying to pass on explicit, complex, and tacit knowledge. Nor am I worried in the slightest about capital-S Science. There is a bright future for any and every institution producing science, even the most basic, broadest science that no private company or patent strategy could ever exclude others from benefiting from. But, I’m afraid, there is no future for the production of grant applications or the institutions that pursue them at the expense of brilliant minds trying to solve our most important puzzles.