Science Policy and Infrastructure

Throughout the post, “we” refers to GiveWell and Good Ventures, who work as partners on the Open Philanthropy Project.

We’ve tried to approach scientific research funding – focusing initially on life sciences – by looking for gaps and deficiencies in the current system for supporting scientific research. We’ve identified several possibilities, including a set of systematic issues that make it difficult to support attempts at breakthrough fundamental science.

One way to respond to a gap in the system would be to fill it ourselves: support the kind of science that has trouble getting support from existing funding agencies, universities, etc. We believe this is the approach taken by organizations such as Howard Hughes Medical Institute. But another way to respond would be to try to improve the system directly, by funding the development of – and advocacy for – proposals for structural changes. Structural changes could include changes in how government agencies allocate funding, in how universities determine professorships, or in other practices that we believe are important in influencing what scientists are able to do. (We broadly refer to universities, journals, and other institutions that play an important role in scientists’ incentives and support as “infrastructure.”)

We find the latter idea intriguing. It appears to us that the strongest scientific funders have little interest in policy analysis and advocacy, while the strongest funders of policy analysis and advocacy tend not to take interest in the scientific research issues discussed in this post. We’re interested in the idea of combining – in a dedicated organization – great scientists and great policy analysts, in order to put in the substantial amount of work needed to develop and promote the best possible proposals for improving science policy and infrastructure. It would be a high-risk, potentially very high-return project to attempt. We aren’t aware of any attempts to do something along these lines at the moment, and we think it could be a risk worth taking.

The rest of this post outlines:

Examples of science policy and infrastructure issues

We previously wrote about claims that the current life sciences system has trouble supporting attempts at breakthrough fundamental science, and we featured a PNAS paper on the subject. This paper gives multiple concrete suggestions for how changes in U.S. policy might reduce competitiveness between scientists, improving prospects for early-career scientists, and supporting higher-risk, higher-reward research:

These ideas are, by and large, fairly concrete and (to my eyes) practical-seeming suggestions for policy change. I haven’t been able to find information on the extent to which they are being implemented or actively discussed (other than that the number of Pioneer Award recipients seems to have shrunk rather than grown from last year to this year). To my knowledge, none have been substantially implemented.

In addition to these sorts of ideas, I think the following could also be highly worthwhile:

Thinking through how universities could experiment with new models for determining professorships, as well as how journals could experiment with new processes for highlighting noteworthy science. Both processes are extremely important factors in what kind of work is supported and incentivized in academia. Universities and journals tend to follow certain common cultural norms today, but given the degree of apparent agreement about room for improvement in the current system, it’s plausible to me that a dedicated effort at developing and promoting new approaches could spur experimentation and change.

Examining existing regulations – regulations on research, regulations regarding sharing of data, etc. – from the perspective of optimizing the ability to gain new knowledge and reap the benefits of innovation. Both the paper linked above and the paper I previously discussed on declining pharmaceutical productivity have identified increasing regulatory burdens as a major issue. In addition, from my limited readings on the history of biomedical research, it seems to me that getting new medical technologies tested and approved used to be much easier than it is today, and that many key experiments were highly speculative and dangerous. Such experiments would have been much more difficult to carry out with today’s regulation and social norms. Work in this category could include the following (these ideas are fairly speculative and may overlap to some degree with work being done at existing institutions):

An opportunity for impact?

It seems to me that there could be a great deal of value in an organization dedicated to bringing together great scientists and great policy analysts, in order to develop and promote the best possible proposals for improving science policy and infrastructure. I would see such work as primarily aiming to have influence on universities, journals, and government agencies via developing well-thought-through ideas and making the case for them on the merits, rather than via exerting political pressure based on grassroots mobilization, media, etc. This strategy of aiming for impact would be comparable to that of organizations such as Center for Global Development and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (Note that claims of impact are available for both CGD and CBPP; we have not vetted either list but find both lists quite plausible.)

I think this kind of activity could be quite influential, and that the difference between a dedicated effort to carry it out and the status quo could be substantial. This would be consistent with my understanding of many past cases of nonprofits influencing policy, as well as with my understanding of how both corporate and nonprofit actors often have influence.

I discussed this idea at some length in my conversation with Neal Lane.

Does such an organization already exist?

My impression is that there are no organizations playing the role described above. The policy issues I’ve laid out have been raised by scientists via op-eds (such as the PNAS paper discussed above) and committee reports (such as a recent piece released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences), but are not the focus of any dedicated organizations (or teams within organizations).

It’s possible that such an organization or team does exist – I haven’t searched exhaustively – but I have several reasons to believe it does not:

Speaking generally from conversations I’ve had with major funders, it appears that the strongest scientific funders have little interest in policy analysis and advocacy, while the strongest funders of policy analysis and advocacy tend not to take interest in the scientific research issues discussed in this post.

Could work along these lines be worthwhile?

In conversations about this idea so far, I’ve encountered a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. (I’ve also generally heard from science funders that it would be outside of their model, regardless of merits, because of the focus on influencing policy rather than directly supporting research.) Most of the skepticism has been along the lines of, “The current system’s cultural norms and practices are too deeply entrenched; it’s futile to try to change them, and better to support the best research directly.”

This may turn out to be true, but I’m not convinced:

So far, we haven’t been able to find a person or organization who seems both qualified and willing to lead the creation of the sort of organization described in this post. We plan to continue looking for such a person or organization, while continuing to discuss, refine and reflect on these ideas.