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Science. Communication. Community.

Science Funding: No Secrets Here

Opinion: Recent disclosure of NSA surveillance has opened a national conversation about confidential government programs. The trouble with secrecy extends to research too, where competitive grant dollars are becoming increasingly scarce.

by Ian Campbell

Discretion is understandable in research, but when funding is on the line, more transparency might be necessary.

Discretion is understandable in research, but when federal funding is on the line, transparency might be necessary.  (Image credit: Adapted from SuperRadNow)

Listen up: we need to have a conversation about something we can’t talk about.

Edward Snowden’s leak of information on NSA spying wasn’t the only unfortunate news to come from the US government this month. Two days before the covert surveillance programs were exposed, the NIH released a fact sheet about the impacts of so-called sequestration on biomedical research funding. For those interested in America’s investment in science, technology, and innovation, the situation was grim.

Approximately 700 fewer competitive biomedical research grants will be funded in 2013, existing grants will receive less money than they were originally funded for, and more than 3,000 NIH trainees will not be getting cost-of-living raises.

This is a considerable setback to scientific research. An increase in competitiveness for grant dollars and decreased spending power from already-meager trainee salaries means up-and-coming scientists, mathematicians, and engineers are going to consider a research career with an even more skeptical eye.

The price of this sacrifice is a $1.55 billion cut, about 5% of the NIH 2013 budget. To put that in context, the 2013 US Government research and development budget for all agencies is about $142 billion, more than half of which ($77 billion) is defense-related.

To be fair, agencies like the Department of Defense and the NSA had to cut their budgets in 2013 as well. The difference between NIH/NSF-funded research and defense research, however: we can’t have an open discussion about the latter.

Clearly, keeping some information confidential is necessary. But the paradoxical consequence of secrecy is the conflict of interest it creates. When information is protected on a need-to-know basis, anybody in a position to know about the project is more likely than not invested in its outcome. Whereas competitive research awards from the NIH and NSF and even some from the DoD are granted on a basis of peer-reviewed merit, secret projects wouldn’t be much of a secret if they could be inspected by outsiders.

Particularly in the case of military and surveillance technology, even simple disclosure that a research program exists could be enough to compromise the project. Whereas summaries of federally-funded research grants are available to the public through venues like NIH RePORTER and written results are required to become available within a year under an open access publishing policy, no similar accountability to the public is required for secret research.

This has led to additional criticism of the scientific research community by individuals like Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, who ironically questioned the value of several NSF-funded research projects based upon his own lack of understanding of the topic. Although each of these grants had already been deemed meritous by a committee of scientific specialists, in times of limited budgets, it may make sense to revisit the nation’s research funding priorities. However, with confidential military and security research funding off the table for discussion, non-classified research cannot possibly come out ahead.

I’m not saying that some government budget cuts aren’t necessary, or that plenty of defense research isn’t highly worthy of funding. But if we can’t talk about these issues openly, we can’t have a real conversation about where the money is going and where the government really needs to make cuts.

How do we fix this discrepancy? Honestly, I don’t know. The need for classification in some types of research is obvious. But, as long as more than half of the federal research budget is devoted to confidential projects, it’s hard to know if it’s being divided up appropriately. Without a clear mechanism of accountability for a project’s relevance and deliverables, there is no way to ensure the American taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

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This entry was posted on June 18, 2013 by in Policy, Research and tagged , , , .
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