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Science, Politics, and Money

January 17, 2010

Recently I had the pleasure of going to a fantastic event called Atlanta Science Tavern. The premise is simple: Pay a minimal entrance fee, eat some bar food, and listen to an expert talk about his or her research into some scientific field. The talker this time was a gentleman by the name of Dr. Todd M. Preuss who talked at length about the differences between other ape brains and the human mind. The first half of his lecture, however, was a discourse on why his field is under-studied and under-funded, and it reminded me of talks I’ve had with friends after the Climate-Gate ‘scandal’ concerning the role of science in greater society.

Not to give a completely inadequate summary of Dr. Preuss’ talk, but he opined about the resistance amongst modern biologists and anatomists to spelling out sapien-simian brain differences as opposed to their similarities. This goes back to Darwin’s efforts, when he spent the better part of his life focusing on the continuity of species, and thus the commonality was far more important to his thesis than the differences, which could be shot down by the religious community as ‘those things unique to God’s chosen creatures.’ The second problem was funding. Dr. Preuss does almost all of his research with higher apes, such as chimpanzees and humans specifically, which is rather expensive compared to ‘similarities’ research done with other mammals like rats and mice.

His brand of academic troubles are something people in my field aren’t really familiar with. In topology, the field of mathematics where my bets are cast, the practical merit is almost zero, but on the other hand lab costs and upkeep are confined to, in order of price, a steady supply of coffee and chalk. Mathematicians don’t have too much trouble getting funding for essentially nothing more than their living costs while they think. Comparative psychologists and neuroscientists, on the other hand, have to pay for expensive equipment, expensive animals, and expensive techniques. The hurdles they must jump to get their work done are much higher, both politically and financially.

Climate-Gate infuriated me to no end, the supposed controversy and its easily dispelled allegations whipping bloviating jerk-face Rush Limbaugh and others into a frenzy, utterly misconstruing scientifically innocuous emails into some sort of conspiracy by Marxist environmentalists. The lesson it taught me is that, though the results and methods and final papers must be subject to peer review, the public seems woefully unequipped to read intimate details of the process without devolving into red-faced polemics. I don’t think this is unique to science— basically any job one works at where one is required to correspond with others via email has all sorts of inside jokes and references non-humorous that others wouldn’t understand, willfully or not, that could indict both ones’ self and ones’ colleagues.

It appears that Dr. Preuss has to preface all of his work with some sort of due diligence on top of good peer-reviewed work with a disclaimer saying that, no, these differences are evolutionarily founded and not created by some god before anyone will take him seriously. The scientists around him are so fearful of a political reprisal that their science has to be modified to fit into a politically conscious world. Anyone who has any care for the sanctity of science should be feeling rightly disgusted at this point. I’m not really sure what an acceptable solution would look like, but science really needs to be allowed to be, as it were, in order to do its job fairly and as objectively as possible. Placing some sort of negligence charge on scientists who don’t do anything wrong but speak familiarly to their colleagues because of the risk of some hacker stealing their emails, or some fat pundit twisting their words and their meanings, could only be a burden that drives up the already high cost of research into these controversial fields, and further puts laypeople in the mindset of distrusting experts to be experts.

Money is the other problem, and it’s intensely tied to politics. It would be nice if we lived in a world where scientists always got unlimited funding for whatever they wanted to research, but that’s unreasonable. What’s also unreasonable is scientific funding fluctuating with political cycles, further miring research with politics, pundits, and polemics at a cost to everyone. Again, an exact solution is not in sight, but I would enjoy seeing something like a set funding pool that’s proportional to budget in a fixed way, overseen by science advocates who, on one hand, can’t lobby for an increase but, on the other hand, aren’t swayed by Congress to fund one field or another.

Dr. Preuss believes his research is fundamental to solving problems as diverse as AIDS vaccine research to handling the diversity of psychological problems that plague people. Other research in other fields similarly makes lofty claims that, sometimes, turn out to be true. Throwing science to the social machinations of political institutions will do nothing but ruin the effectiveness of research and cast doubt, far more doubt than should be due from people who aren’t experts, onto an already distrusted and disparaged scientific community.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Diana permalink
    February 9, 2010 5:23 pm

    While at Emory, Dr. Preuss was my boss at Yerkes for 4 years! Glad to hear he’s still fighting the good fight.

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