How Best to Hold Federal Scientific Research Accountable

The U.S. Congress is responsible for overseeing federal funding of scientific research. The question raised recently is how best to do that to ensure that government investments fund the finest science -- and promote most effectively America's economic growth and prosperity.

In a bylined article, published on January 12 by Politico Magazine, U.S. Senator Rand Paul and Congressman Lamar Smith -- Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology -- jointly address the question. They write:

The first step toward eliminating wasteful spending should be increased transparency. At the moment, the only information available to the public about grants is a brief summary on the agency's website written by the researcher. Instead, agencies -- not researchers -- should provide a plain-English, nontechnical explanation of why taxpayer-funded grants are important or have the potential to benefit the national interest. Once the process is more open and transparent, it will be easier to redirect public research investments to the areas that boost economic growth and job creation: biology, computer science, mathematics and engineering.

Increased transparency is surely to be encouraged in this context -- and in most contexts in government. The public has a right to know -- and understand -- how its money is being spent.

Science, too, has a responsibility to make its work more readily understood by the general public, both to inform them and to engage their support. That's why Stony Brook University, where I am President, has worked so closely with Alan Alda, the renowned actor and science advocate, to create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Science and communication must be more closely linked, if science is to build the broad constituency that its advancement requires.

But the challenge in holding federal funding of scientific research accountable is not to ensure a set of grants that sound reasonable -- or can be more easily directed to certain areas of focus -- but to foster a national environment in which innovation flourishes. It's the environment of discovery and breakthroughs that the funding creates that is so crucial.

One of the great challenges of scientific research, in which I've been involved for years, is that it evolves in surprising ways with unexpected twists and turns. Breakthroughs frequently defy conventional wisdom and have historically even been considered preposterous. That's what makes innovation so hard to predict -- both in terms of where the breakthrough will come, and in its practical application.

At the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at Stony Brook University, for instance, some of the leading mathematicians in the world are exploring theoretical issues whose practical applications are unknown. Yet, Simon Donaldson, a permanent member of the Simons Center, was recently awarded the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, funded by Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg -- two legendary figures in technological innovation. They understand that, just as quantum physics led to semiconductors, theoretical discoveries make practical applications possible.

But it is not possible to predict which funding will lead to which breakthrough, and often odd-sounding grant titles mask serious areas of inquiry. Simon Donaldson's research on the topology of smooth (differentiable) four-dimensional manifolds would sound obscure to most people, yet it's at the forefront of scientific inquiry.

The surest route to success in scientific research is to foster a robust environment of scientific investigation and engage the finest minds in that pursuit -- and not just in a few preferred areas of science, but in the broad expanse of scientific inquiry. To that extent, key areas of accountability should be these: Are America's finest minds attracted to the sciences? Is America attracting and retaining the finest scholars from other countries? Do America's young scholars have access to sufficient research funding? Is America's research funding leading to breakthrough discoveries?

Each of those areas can be measured and held accountable. Researchers funded by the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health, for instance, have won hundreds of Nobel Prizes in recent decades.

That's where our focus should fall -- not on whether research grants can be defended based on their titles or explanatory paragraphs or on their clear connection to certain fields of study, but on whether the environment they create fosters the innovation on which America's economy and jobs so heavily depend.

The author, a physician and medical researcher, is President of Stony Brook University.