23 Mar 2009, 4:26pm
General Science
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The Government Grant System: Inhibitor of Truth and Innovation?

Donald W. Miller, Jr. 2007. The Government Grant System: Inhibitor of Truth and Innovation? Journal of Information Ethics, 2007, pp 59-69.

Donald W. Miller, Jr., is a professor of surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He received his M.D. degree from Harvard and did his cardiothoracic surgery residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. He has written two books on heart surgery and one, Heart in Hand, on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, films of Woody Allen, and his life as a heart surgeon. He also writes articles for LewRockwell.com, which includes pieces on the importance of integrative medicine for maintaining optimum health.

Full text [here]

Selected Excerpts:


Flush with success in creating an atom bomb, the U.S. federal government decided it should start funding nonmilitary scientific research. A government report entitled “Science, the Endless Frontier” provides the justification for doing this. It makes the case that “science is the responsibility of government because new scientific knowledge vitally affects our health, our jobs, and our national security” (Bush, 1945). Accordingly, the government established a Research Grants Office in January 1946 to award grants for research in the biomedical and physical sciences. It received 800 grant applications that year. The Research Grants Office is now known as the Center for Scientific Review (CSR), and it processes applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other agencies in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In 2005, CSR received 80,000 grant applications. …

Twenty-six federal granting agencies now manage 1,000 grant programs. Even clinical trials of drugs, vaccines, and devices, where industry may profit from the outcome, have come under the purview of government. Zarin and colleagues (2005) reviewed ClinicalTrials.gov records and found that the federal government currently funds 9,796 (51%) of the 19,355 interventional trials being conducted. Industry sponsors 4,734 (24%); and universities, foundations, and other organizations, 4,825 (25%). Under the current system scientists are expected to spend time drafting, writing, and refining unsolicited R01 grant applications, despite a less than one in ten chance of success.

Ethics of Writing Grant Proposals

Ethics in science and society “describe appropriate behavior according to contemporary standards” (Friedman, 1996). Two standards that scientists follow for writing grant proposals are 1) Keep it safe and survive, and 2) Don’t lie if you don’t have to. Pollack (2005) addresses the first ethic, noting that the paramount motivational factor for scientists today is the competition to survive. A scientist’s most pressing need, which supersedes the scientific pursuit of truth, is to get her grant funded—to pay her salary and that of her staff, to pay department bills, and to obtain academic promotion. The safest way to generate grants is to avoid any dissent from orthodoxy. Grant-review study sections whose members’ expertise and status are tied to the prevailing view do not welcome any challenge to it. A scientist who writes a grant proposal that dissents from the ruling paradigm will be left without a grant. Speaking for his fellow scientists Pollack writes, “We have evolved into a culture of obedient sycophants, bowing politely to the high priests of orthodoxy.” …

With regard to the second ethic, Albert Szent-Györgyi said, “I always tried to live up to Leo Szilard’s commandment, ‘Don’t lie if you don’t have to.’ I had to. I filled up pages with words and plans I know I would not follow. When I go home from my laboratory in the late afternoon, I often do not know what I am going to do the next day. I expect to think that up during the night. How could I tell them what I would do a year hence?” (qtd. in Moss, 1988, p. 217). This long-time cancer researcher, discoverer of vitamin C, and Nobel laureate was unable, despite multiple attempts, to obtain a government grant. Friedman (1996) describes a variant of this ethic where an investigator applies for a grant to do a study that he has already completed. With this grant awarded and money in hand he publishes the study and uses the funds on a different project. The misrepresentation enables the investigator to remain one project ahead of his funding. Apparently enough seasoned investigators do this that the academic community views the practice as sound “grantsmanship.”

Apollonian Research

When the peer review grant system was established in 1946, people assumed that scientific progress occurs in an evolutionary, incremental, and cumulative fashion. Having a panel of experts judge the worth of each research proposal seeking funds seemed then to be the best way to allocate federal tax dollars for research. This system assumes that a majority of specialists in a given field will know where truth lies and how best to get there and find it (Ling, 2004b). But as Hall (1954) and Kuhn (1962) later showed, periodic upheavals and revolutions in science disrupt an otherwise steady growth of scientific knowledge. Long-cherished ideas are replaced wholesale by new ones that lead science in a different direction.

The grant system fosters an Apollonian approach to research. The investigator does not question the foundation concepts of biomedical and physical scientific knowledge. He sticks to the widely held belief that the trunks and limbs of the trees of knowledge, in, for example, cell physiology and on AIDS, are solid. The Apollonian researcher focuses on the peripheral branches and twigs and develops established lines of knowledge to perfection. He sees clearly what course his research should take and writes grants that his peers are willing to fund. Forced by the existing grant system to follow such an approach, Pollack (2005) argues that scientists have defaulted into becoming a culture of believers without rethinking the fundamentals.

Intuitive geniuses, like Thomas Edison, Louis Pasteur, Ernest Rutherford, and Albert Einstein, take a Dionysian, transformational approach to science. Their research relies on intuition and “accidental” discoveries. Szent-Györgyi describes intuition as “a sort of subconscious reasoning, only the end result of which becomes conscious.” The Dionysian scientist knows the direction he wants to follow into the unknown, but “he has no idea what he is going to find there or how he is going to find it. Defining the unknown or writing down the subconscious is a contradiction in absurdum.” And, citing Pasteur, who said, “A discovery is an accident finding a prepared mind,” Szent-Györgyi notes that “accidental” discoveries are rarely true accidents (Moss, 1988, pp. 216–217). …

Unassailable Paradigms

Paradigms in the biomedical and climate sciences that have achieved the status of dogma are,

A) Cholesterol and saturated fats cause coronary artery disease.

B) Mutations in genes cause cancer.

C) Human activity is causing global warming through increased CO2 emissions.

D) A virus called HIV (human immunodeficiency) causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

E) The damaging effects of toxins are dose-dependent in a linear fashion down to zero. Even a tiny amount of a toxin, such as radiation or cigarette smoke, will harm some people.

F) The membrane-pump theory of cell physiology is based on the concept that cells are aqueous solutions enclosed by a cell membrane.

Scientists who question these state-sanctioned paradigms are denied grants and silenced (Moran 1998). But valid questions nevertheless have been raised about each of these established orthodoxies. The idea that cholesterol causes coronary heart disease is now close to being dogma, and investigators who question the lipid hypothesis need not apply for funding. But there is growing evidence that the hypothesis is wrong, as Ravnskov (2000) documents in The Cholesterol Myths. Aneuploidy (an abnormal number and balance of chromosomes), instead ofmutation-produced oncogenes, may well prove to be the true cause of cancer (Bialy, 2004; Duesberg and Rasnick, 2000; Miller, 2006).

The human-caused global warming paradigm is most likely false (Soon et al., 2001; Editorial, 2006). Two climate astrophysicists, Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas, present evidence that shows the climate of the 20th century fell within the range experienced during the past 1,000 years. Compared with other centuries, it was not unusual (Soon and Baliunas, 2003). Unable to obtain grants from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), Soon (personal communication, August 31, 2006) observes that NASA funds programs mainly on social-political reasoning rather than science. …

Peer review enforces state-sanctioned paradigms. Pollack (2005) likens it to a trial where the defendant judges the plaintiff. Grant review panels defending the orthodox view control the grant lifeline and can sentence a challenger to “no grant.” Deprived of funds the plaintiff-challenger is forced to shut down her lab and withdraw. Conlan (1976) characterizes the peer-review grant system as an “incestuous ‘buddy system’ that stifles new ideas and scientific breakthroughs.”

Science is self-correcting and, in time, errors are eliminated, or so we are taught. But now with a centralized bureaucracy controlling science, perhaps this rhetoric is “just wishful thinking” (Hillman, 1996, p.102). Freedom to dissent is an essential ingredient of societal health. Braben (2004) contends that suppressing challenges to established orthodoxy sets a society on a path to its doom.

Science in Service to the State

Over the last 60 years a new power structure, the state, has taken control of information. It uses federal tax money to fund and control research through the peer-review grant system. It forms mutually advantageous partnerships with industry and the academic community, which do its bidding. The state holds sway over education. And to round out its control of information, an increasingly powerful centralized government bureaucracy has persuaded the mainstream media to accept and espouse state-approved ideas. The Western tradition of information ethics dating from ancient Greece to the 20th century, characterized by freedom of speech and inquiry, has been co-opted by government.

Knowledge advances by questioning accepted paradigms (Hillman, 1995). The state thwarts this and requires its tax-funded scientists to conform to the official establishment view on such things as global warming and HIV/AIDS. Government-sponsored scientific research reflects the biases, preferences, and priorities of its leaders (Moran, 1998). The state uses science to further its social and political purposes. Its actions follow Lang’s First Law of Sociodynamics, where “The power structure does what they want, when they want; then they try to find reasons to justify it. If this does not work, they stonewall it (Lang, 1998, p. 797).

When inconvenient facts challenge paradigms the state promotes, it justifies them by consensus. If polar bear experts (Amstrup et al., 1995) find that the bear population in Alaska is increasing, placing doubt on the government’s stance on climate change, this finding is dismissed as being outside the consensus and ignored. Science magazine supports the prevailing view, stating, “There is a scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change” that accounts for “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years” (Oreskes, 2004).

In 21st century America, consensus and computer models masquerade as science. They supplant experimental data. As Corcoran (2006) puts it, “Science has been stripped of its basis in experiment, knowledge, reason and the scientific method and made subject to the consensus created by politics and bureaucrats.” Reduced to a belief system, a majority of scientists and groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change can declare, without having to provide scientific evidence, that they believe humans cause global warming.

This alone makes the hypothesis become an established fact and received knowledge (Barnes, 1990). Peer review compounds the problem. It competes with objective evidence as proof of truth.

Computer models purporting to make sense of complex data, particularly with regard to climate change, have replaced the scientific goal of supplanting complicated hypotheses with simpler ones (Pollack, 2005). Researchers offer computer models as evidence for global warming. When unsound assumptions and faulty data render one model unreliable, other improved ones are constructed to justify the state’s desire to promulgate this “truth,” which it can use to exert greater control over the economy and technological progress.

Grant Reform

Bauer (2004) proposes that there be mandatory funding of contrarian research, along with a science court set up to adjudicate technical controversies. In addition, science journalism needs to investigate established orthodoxies more vigorously. Pollack (2005) proposes several remedies to the competitive peer review grant system. Government should establish forums where the most significant challenge paradigms can compete openly with their orthodox counterparts in civilized debate. Open-minded “generalists” who have no stake in the outcome should adjudicate, like a jury does in law. Pools of money should be set aside to support multiple grants on selected schools of thought. Training grants that encourage curiosity and thinking outside the box should be made available. And the NIH should provide lifetime support for a select cohort of Dionysian scientists.

The peer review grant system stifles innovation and protects reigning paradigms, right or wrong. The 60-year experiment of “Advancing Health through Peer Review,” the NIH Center for Scientific Review’s slogan, has failed. It needs to be dismantled. Tax-funded research would be better conducted and more productive, if government allocated funds directly to universities and foundations to use as they see fit for advancement of the biomedical and physical sciences. …



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