Government Funding of Science – How It Works

(The following is a transcript of  co-host 2Buck Chuck’s (Dr. Charles A. Doswell III) segment “Leading Horses To Water” which airs on my American Heathen® radio show.  Chuck is a world-renowned scientist in the field of meteorology.  Air date of this particular segment – 06/09/12)

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science. Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality. In other words, pretty much like the present. These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world. I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

If you listen to all the propaganda against global climate change, a scientific topic that has been politicized to an extent I never would have dreamed possible, it seems the deniers of the reality of global warming are proposing that there’s a vast conspiracy amongst global climate change scientists. Since these airheads seem capable of understanding others only by looking in the mirror, they see profit as the main motive for scientists to become involved in this putative cabal. Climate scientists are being accused of lying to the public purely for personal gain!

Apart from the utter absurdity of a global conspiracy among scientists to publish science they know to be wrong, this raises the question of just how scientific research is funded. There are only a few basic mechanisms for supporting high-level research: (1) government science laboratories that employ scientists to do research, (2) private sector support for research, and (3) university-based academic research funded predominantly through the National Science Foundation (NSF – a Federal agency), although academics also accept other sources (governmental and non-governmental). They take whatever they can get, of course.

The work done in Federally-funded research labs is done by their staff scientists, who receive a respectable wage for their work, comparable to academic salaries for faculty in the sciences. Apart from their salary (and any bonuses they might receive for their accomplishments), there are very strict rules imposed on these government scientists – they cannot accept money or expensive “gifts” from anyone else for any purpose, on pain of losing their jobs and perhaps being prosecuted. Thus, scientists in these Federal laboratories are as independent as it’s possible for anyone to be. No enhancements to funding for climate research can possibly find their way into the pockets of these folks! Virtually all of climate science being done in such facilities is supportive of the IPCC findings about global climate change.

The science done in universities by research faculty and associated scientists is dominated by NSF funding. In order to obtain such funding, scientists must submit a proposal to the NSF, which is sent out for review by other scientists working in that discipline. If the reviews are favorable, the proposal is ranked according to internal NSF criteria and those highly-ranked are funded (nowadays, often with NSF-required reductions to the proposed budget). The researchers are paid for some fraction of their time for participation in the project – typically an amount comparable to their salary for 2-3 months, as many universities actually pay their faculty only for the 9 months of the school year (3/4 of their nominal salary). The faculty have to cover the summer months of their salary by obtaining external grants like those from the NSF.

The salaries for university researchers are not set by the researchers themselves. Rather, they’re paid according to the university’s standardized salary rules, varying primarily with the seniority of the researchers. There’s simply no way for university scientists to add to the university-mandated income for their faculty or staff position. The rest of the proposal’s budget supports graduate student assistants, the actual research costs (charges for data, personal computers, field experiment costs, and so on), and university-provided infrastructure, such as computer facilities, laboratories, offices, phones, Internet access, etc. An NSF grant is not simply a check handed over to a researcher to spend as desired. Virtually all the budget is prescribed by various rules designed specifically to prevent the very abuse the deniers are accusing climate scientists of perpetrating! Virtually all of climate science being done in such facilities is supportive of the IPCC findings about global climate change.

Finally, consider funding by the private sector. This is precisely what the conservatives believe to be the proper way to do things: the pseudo-sacred, free-market, private sector way. In this domain, however, there are few, if any, rules governing how private sector funding is to be used in support of research. There may or may not be any strings attached to the resources contributed by the private sector, so there’s considerable room for abuse. Like the research contributed by cigarette companies for resources into the health hazards from smoking, many private sector contributions for global climate change research have been targeted at that small minority of scientists who are known to deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming. When someone is paying you for your research who has a pecuniary stake in the outcome of that research, it seems almost inevitable that your results would wind up favoring your supporters. If one were to seek a conspiracy regarding the science of global climate changes, this would be the right place to start! If you must be distrustful of scientists, here is where to look to find those unworthy of your trust! A considerable fraction of climate science being done under such circumstances is not supportive of the IPCC findings about global climate change. Is this a coincidence? I think not!

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world. Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.

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