Wrapping up 2009′s Scientific Philanthropy

It is time to reflect on 2009 — a challenge for all of us who try to take scientific philanthropy seriously.   The space where science, philanthropy, and society converge has become increasingly complex, crowded, and muddied.    It is too early to tell how the huge infusions of stimulus funding into academic science research will impact priorities and planning into the future.  Private funders disbursing relatively small sums will have to pick their way carefully through the morass of federal dollars if they want to truly have any measurable impact.    It is difficult to get researchers to think along heterodox directions when orthodox thinking keeps the wheels well-oiled.

The recent spate of news articles questioning the utility of cancer screening (needed airing) and the veracity of climate change data (not helpful) is shining a spotlight on the types of the problems that happen when an enterprise becomes to large and when the usual self- correcting processes break down because “there is too much at stake.” Similarly, a number of high-profile retractions in the most prestigious of journals is causing some to question whether the sheer volume of publications and the pressure to secure high imapct papers (and the subsequent publicity) is causing errors to go unnoticed.

It is difficult to maintain standards much beyond 2 or 3 generations – norms shift, implicit knowledge becomes lost, standards decline.     When I first started working in the lab where I did my Ph.D. research – my mentor used to train all new people on the procedures.    He thought that each time someone he had trained trained someone else (who might then train a third person) something was lost.    We all develop short cuts.  We forget to make implicit knowledge explicit.   We all learn over time what really matters and what you can let slide.    But he didn’t want such habits passed on — knowing what would eventually happen.   The lab would become increasingly shipshod and sloppy.    If he started each individual off to his own extremely high and exacting standards – that individual might slide a little bit – but not too far.

It is time for all of us who care about scientific research – be we in the lab or working for funders – to tighten up our thinking.    It is time to revisit our assumptions.   We can benefit from thinking about why we do what we do they way that we do it.    We should think about how we are training and mentoring others – and renew our commitments to high standards.    Systems can coast on momentum for only so long.   Order requires energy.

Time to roll up our sleeves and recommit to the hard work.   progress in 2010 depends on it!

Happy Holidays!   Happy New Year!