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Seed's inaugural edition of the State of Science explores the current scientific landscape and its emergent hotspots—along with the motivations and ambitions of the individuals charting its future.

Read more Seed State of Science 2008

Revolutionary Minds: Bob Twiggs + Jordi Puig-Suari

What does science cost?
Where does the money come from?

Money

Considering that science is fundamental to the world's productivity, we collectively spend very little on it. On average, nations spend about 2.3 percent of their GDP on scientific research and development, or roughly one trillion dollars a year worldwide. This number quickly dwindles when divided between every researcher on Earth—especially considering not all research yields immediate returns in terms of money or knowledge. Ultimately, the pressure for practical results placed on science investment can create conflicts of interest. In light of 2008's massive economical turmoil, finding new ways to make sound investments and manage risk in scientific research has become crucial.

Metric Earth's Science Budget

Earth's Science Budget

Primary Source

THE IMPORTANCE OF RISKY RESEARCH

Eric Weinstein, mathematician and hedge fund manager

What's wrong with the way ideas get promoted in the world of science?
We've created cheap academic life with the way the review system now works. You can effectively extinguish junior people, their ideas, and whatever threat they pose to your fiefdom—and you can do it with little risk or cost. You shouldn't be allowed to block an innovative idea anonymously, even if it's unlikely to work.

How could treating science like finance help that situation?
In finance you can short those potentially bad ideas. Applied to science, shorting could reveal what the senior people actually think of the juniors. If you want to short somebody, and you do the calculation of what happens should their ideas take off, it can be frightening. It's not like losing an even-money bet—it's being on the hook for an unbounded negative experience. Imagine Erwin Chargaff shorting Watson and Crick on what he called their "extreme ignorance" in 1952.

What does "shorting" actually mean?
If you want to short a stock, you might be willing to take $10,000 worth of shares now, with the understanding that you're going to have to replace the same number of shares in the future. If the company goes under, you've just made $10,000. But if it becomes Google, your pain is going to be truly exquisite. Building that kind of risk into science could make people more rational, civil, and transparent, while getting some benefit from ideas that ultimately fail. As to how we replace the current system with something that forces scientific leaders to manage real risk, almost any market system should be more efficient than the privilege of anonymously extinguishing ideas.

So journals and funding sources should be more willing to take risks on young scientists, even if they might be wrong?
We don't need people to take risk; we need people to manage it. There are lots of seductive dumb ideas. If you start swinging at all of them, you're going to bankrupt yourself. The important thing is to assemble an ideas portfolio. That way, whether they mostly work and occasionally fail spectacularly, or rather mostly fail and occasionally work spectacularly, you are giving young people and their risky ideas room to work. —Interviewed by Evan Lerner

Seed 19

The Fundamentals: Money
Posted November 20, 2008
Originally appeared in Seed 19

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