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Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.
The group of researchers who figured out the molecular structure of RNA. (Photo: marsdd/Flickr)

The group of researchers who figured out the molecular structure of RNA. (Photo: marsdd/Flickr)

Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, recently made people angry when he linked budget cuts to the slow progress on an Ebola vaccine. Without the decade-long erosion of the NIH budget, he told Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, "we would have been a year or two ahead of where we are, which would have made all the difference." The push-back was immediate. Collins' claim was dissected by the media and countered by one of Collins' own colleagues, the head of the NIH unit that oversees Ebola research. Many other scientists disagreed as well. University of California-Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen called Collins' comments "complete bullshit."

Why such an angry response? After all, it’s undeniably true that the NIH budget has been ailing for a decade. The NIH's purchasing power has dropped by as much as 21 percent since 2004, a consequence of inflation and flat or shrinking appropriations by Congress. Research, including Ebola research, has inevitably been scaled back.

Most critics expressed some version of the argument made by Eisen: "It is a gross overtrivialization of even the directed scientific process involved in developing vaccines to suggest that simply by spending more money on something you are guaranteed a product. And, if I were in Congress, frankly I’d be sick of hearing this kind of baloney, and would respond with a long list of things I’d been promised by previous NIH directors if only we’d spend more money on them." In other words, you can't simply buy the scientific results you want.

We, scientists and society, need to be more honest about the uncertainty inherent in the scientific process and in any projection of society's future needs.

This puts scientists in an awkward position. After all, one of the main reasons that our government funds scientific research is because we expect it to produce tangible benefits. The rationale for government-funded research was laid out in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, the top U.S. science official during World War II, who argued for generous government support of peace-time research that will "bring higher standards of living, will lead to the prevention or cure of diseases, will promote conservation of our limited national resources, and will assure means of defense against aggression." For six decades we've been committed to Bush's vision, spending billions of taxpayer dollars on science each year, not to subsidize intellectual curiosity, but to obtain concrete outcomes like an Ebola vaccine. This means that scientists who accept this money have to strike a delicate balance when they pitch their work to society—they need to promise definite results, while acknowledging that there are no guarantees in science. If they promise too much, it looks like pandering; if they don't promise enough, then they're asking the government to pay for their intellectual hobby. Francis Collins knows how this game is played as well as any scientist, but this time he flubbed it.

It's a problem faced by scientists at all levels, not just those who lobby Congress for money. Researchers who want to keep the lights on in the lab quickly learn how to put the right spin on their work. When my colleagues and I submitted a proposal to the NIH for a basic research project on fruit fly embryos, we played up the medical angle of our work, discussing its relevance to congenital malformations and various types of cancer. The NIH declined to fund the proposal, so we submitted it to the National Science Foundation instead. The NSF, less lavishly funded than the NIH, is extremely wary about supporting anything that belongs on the medical turf of the NIH. So we completely reversed course in our proposal and put in a paragraph explaining why our research was unrelated to human health in any direct way. We got the money.

Were we dishonest when we initially claimed our work was medically relevant? Absolutely not—my colleagues and I are basic scientists, but we are employed by medical schools. Our research fits comfortably within the missions of both the NSF and the NIH. The reviewers and officials at both agencies understand this; we weren't deceiving anyone. But we had to play the game and pitch our work in a way that was consistent with the goals of a particular agency.

Researchers are required to do this in part because the science agencies themselves have to pitch their research portfolio to society—particularly to members of Congress who are responsible for making sure that society is getting something back for its research dollars. It's easy to point to the past and argue that basic research has an excellent record. There would be no iPhone without the fundamental scientific discoveries of the past half-century that made solid-state electronics, processor architectures, and long-lasting batteries possible. But it is much more difficult to point to ongoing research and make credible promises about future benefits. An HIV vaccine would save more lives around the world than an Ebola vaccine, but we still don't have one, despite decades of sustained funding.

To justify their usefulness, scientists will continue to make promises, but those promises should be ones they can keep. The dust-up over Collins' remarks shows that we, scientists and society, need to be more honest about the uncertainty inherent in the scientific process and in any projection of society's future needs. The NIH has long had a strategic plan in place to develop vaccines for many emerging infectious diseases, including Ebola. It was impossible to predict that there would be an urgent need this year for an Ebola vaccine, instead of one for, say, the SARS virus. And even if we could predict such a thing, researchers couldn't guarantee that an Ebola vaccine would be ready when it was most needed. But without money for this type of research, we can guarantee that a vaccine would never be ready.