Climate and HIV Science - Why the Different Trajectories?

I continue to ponder the extent to which public funding, in Terence’s words, “has introduced perverse incentives and has damaged the intellectual autonomy of the universities,” and I am pleased that he feels I am “obviously right” about that.

But, I ask, how universally does this apply?  My experiential perspective may be quite biasing.  My doctorate was in Ecological Climatology (University of Wisconsin, 1979) and I am ABD at University of Chicago in Biological Sciences (Ecology).  Both fields are highly politicized with a substantial “it’s worse than we thought” leitmotif.  One needs only to look at the painfully incomplete summaries of climate science regularly minted by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) or the writings of Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich to appreciate the depth of the bias.  But what of other fields?

I mentioned the fact that programmatic science—beginning with the Manhattan Project— has replaced individualistic effort as science became, in many fields, supported by the monopoly provider of the federal government.  Anyone who has attended faculty meetings knows that what individuals would say compared to what the relevant department says are often radically different things.  Group science has much larger budgets and numbers of individuals to support—and, while it is unfortunate, it is only logical that in the group process individuals will work together to continue that support.

I mention the USGCRP because it is a discrete but large entity whose purview is defined largely by a single issue, which is climate change. If climate change is not important, neither is the USGCRP, nor its funding ($2.4 billion per year). Chip Knappenberger and I have an upcoming publication on the problems with the USGCRP here.

Again, I ask the question, how correct are my ideas?  I would criticize them by noting that the degree to which federal funding biases science or scientific assessments may in fact vary from one subject area to another.  While I know, and can provide quantitative data that can be used to test the hypothesis of bias, and can show that this occurs in climate science, I don’t think it happened in biomedical science with the AIDS issue.

AIDS and climate change began in much the same way—with end-of-the-world rhetoric from the research community at the beginning of the funding trajectory, visible on Sunday morning television.  But something different from what happened in climate change then evolved.  Instead of continuously being “worse than we thought,” research in fact began to handle the disease to the point of some controllability.  The rhetoric changed, and the research community obviously perceived no threat from that.

Why these two issues could begin so similarly but evolve so differently is worth thinking about.  My working hypothesis is that the global warming community knows there is no “cure,” only the (obviously ongoing) adaptation that ensues for many environmental fluctuations.  In this case the issue remains politically viable (unsolved problems always seem to require more funding), while doomsaying on AIDS (still something that causes great suffering) could not be maintained in the light of scientific progress.

Any comments from the biomedicos out there?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Terence Kealey argues that we don’t need public funding for science. Not only are many of the common historical examples of the benefits of public funding false, the economic model of publicly funded scientific research is fundamentally flawed. Empirically, public R&D appears to have a negligible effect on economic growth. Private science is likely to be more responsive to consumers’ needs, and the costs of duplicating it are often high enough that we need not worry about free riders on the discoveries of others.

Response Essays

  • Victoria Harden offers several historical examples of successful funding for public health initiatives. These programs, including the prevention of cholera, basic research on chemical warfare agents and cancer, and the identification of the virus that causes AIDS, might conceivably have happened under purely private auspices. But she finds it implausible that private actors would have responded as quickly or effectively.

  • Patrick J. Michaels discusses the public choice aspects of scientific funding, which introduce systematic bias into research: Scientists need grant money to advance in their careers, and only the government provides it in sufficient quantities. Yet the government’s agenda is never neutral, and the scientists’ agendas tend strongly to fall into line. The result is a consensus built not on scientific fact, but on the alignment of personal interests.

  • David Guston rejects the public goods argument for scientific research. He nonetheless argues that it is essential for any government to conduct such research. Governments are constantly called upon to regulate and adjudicate disputes among scientifically and technologically savvy actors. They are obliged to make laws that take into account scientific laws. Indeed, no one would want to live under a state that predictably failed in these respects.