My old friend (and former mentor) Geoff Davis runs the website phds.org, where he blogs on matters related to engineering and science, particularly the education and professional development of young scientists. Prompted by the concluding paragraph of my post on opportunity cost as it pertains to stem cell research, Geoff writes:
I suspect that Andrew is more reacting crankily to a boilerplate plea for money rather than being completely serious. After all, this same argument could be made about any contender for federal investment, and I haven't ever heard of anyone else making a serious effort to estimate returns of alternative federal investments in the course of asking for more money.As if we were still sitting at Murphy's, I will rewrite this paragraph as follows:
I am sure that Andrew is not only reacting crankily to yet another boilerplate plea for money but is completely serious. After all, this same argument should be made about every contender for federal investment, and it should be a part of every stage of the federal budgeting process to make a serious effort to estimate the returns of alternative federal investments in the course of asking for more money.From the few grant panels on which I've served, I don't think my description is so wide of the mark. The panels rank the grant applications in order of their scholarly promise, and the budget that has been previously allocated determines how high in the ranking an application has to be in order to get funded. In that stage of the process, the ranking is the consideration of opportunity cost. I've even been on some panels in which there was discussion of not using the whole budget allocation if the set of applications was unusually weak.
I have less understanding of how the budget allocations for the grant panels are set, but I presume that policy makers, in consultation with the bureaucrats, assess the returns from past allocations to scientific research and decide on how much they want to budget going forward. Setting that budget is, in some form, the consideration of opportunity cost. As Geoff goes on to say:
His point about opportunity costs is a good one to remember, though. Imagine instead that Fuller and Reeve were demanding a bigger slice of the NIH pie for stem cell research. Something else would have to be cut. How would one make the case for stem cells as opposed to, say, more research on cancer or heart disease?One would have to get inside the mind of the program officers at the NIH to know this for sure, but at some level, it's already being done. It just wasn't being done--or even acknowledged--in the WaPo op-ed that prompted my original post.