The real cost of science
In the two weeks since my last post, the US government shutdown has not ended. Federally funded science is slowly winding down as programs spend their last allocations. Less money means fewer discoveries, but exactly how many fewer? How much knowledge will not be created because of the shutdown?
It is hard to measure the relationship between a society’s investment in science and that society’s improvement because of those discoveries. There are a few reasons. First, the impact of any one discovery is hard to predict, and may only become clear in the long term. A mathematical advance written on a napkin with pencil may have negligible cost, but lead to applications in other fields in the following decades. On the other hand, billions of dollars invested in human disease research may lead to negligible improvements in public health. Second, measuring improvement is a difficult task – is it increase in human lifespans or income, prevention of war, or something less definable? For these reasons, funding agencies typically focus on target areas (e.g. cancer treatment, nuclear weapons, biodiversity conservation) and spend widely and broadly until the aim is achieved, or until societal interest refocuses on other topics. It’s not easy to guess how much money will be needed to solve a given problem.
But one way to measure societal benefit is by scientific publication rates. More publications presumably mean more discoveries. How much money does a new publication cost society? Scheiner and Bouchie, who are officials at the National Science Foundation, just answered this question. In their paper, they took the total amount of funding for environmental biology research (ecology) and divided it by the numbers of publications resulting from this work, a number which all federally-funded researchers have to report. A scientific publication costs approximately 34,000 US dollars. In contrast, the state of California pays approximately 47,000 dollars per year for each prison inmate, and 8,700 dollars per year to educate each student.
When I read their number, I thought it was high – surely the average study doesn’t require so many resources. But many kinds of expenses are factored in to the NSF number. For example, most universities take approximately 50% of each federal grant in overhead, to pay for administration, pensions, building upkeep, utilities, and so on. That means the $34,000 represents something closer to $20,000 in ‘actual’ expenses. Salaries also come out of this number, leaving something probably closer to $10,000 in research money, based on allocations in grants that I’ve seen funded. So where does the rest go?
An ecological theorist may appear to not need any more resources than a pencil and paper (and generously, a wastebasket). However, they still have costs. Attendance at conferences requires registration fees and travel expenses; publication in open-access journals can cost multiple thousands of dollars. Computers and software resources have to be purchased. Student researchers have to be paid.
For field or experimental ecologists, the biggest source of expenses for ecologists is in the prosecution of their work. Field trucks, station fees at biological field stations, chemicals, glassware, notebooks, GPS units, plane tickets to remote parts of the world, research permits, and the list goes on. Here are two examples from my recent work in Peru paid by Yadvinder Malhi:
First, weather stations – here, an aerial tower installed in a remote location in the eastern Andes, probably costing several thousand dollars to build, more to ship to this country, and even more to transport and install on the side of a lonely mountain and maintain each year.
Or second, a large pile of timber, purchased to build a research platform, plus the services of dozens of people to carry that timber miles into the forest, and then later to assemble the structure.
These expenses all add up, and get us closer to the $34,000 number. To me, as a finishing PhD student, the numbers seem large, but I suspect they will begin to seem smaller as I dream up increasingly complex and large-scale projects. I also don’t know how they compare to other fields. My intuition is that fields like molecular biology, genomics, and experimental physics have far higher per-publication costs, but I don’t know for sure.
The next dangerous questions then become: how much impact do publications in each field make? Would it be worth refocusing research spending on low-cost, high-impact science? Does scientific spending produce more benefit per cost than my other two examples (prison incarceration or K-12 education)? Or are there some areas worth investing in, whatever the cost? I’ll leave that more complex issue for another post, and instead hope that there will soon be federal money for any of these areas.