leading by example

The Perpsective appearing in the current PLoS by Paul Ehrlich has me scratching my head a bit.


I very much admire Paul. And I am particularly supportive of his efforts to make us take the issue of overpopulation seriously. But I do not understand these rants written by scientists and directed at some monolithic, intellectually underpowered “the public” failing to act on global climate change because we don’t understand (or believe) the science. I don’t see it. In my travels – I see great sensitivity to environmental concerns. Local farmer’s markets are mushrooming. More people are communting in energy efficient ways. I see people dialing down the thermostat in winter and opening windows more on warm days. Most people are willing to accept that the value of goods should reflect true prices – including the costs to the environment. Maybe they are not doing these things for the exact reason of global climate change – maybe their concerns are more local. But so what?
I can tell you that what “the public” is not seeing is scientists walking their talk. Scientists burn just as much carbon as they please – most senior scientists will tell you that they fly 100,000 + miles a year. They are happy to have houses in water- strapped areas like California or fragile ocean environments like Cape Cod. They have homes full of art, fine furniture, and energy-thirsty electronics. They live very comfortable upper-class lives. Many scientists have families – and most probably have a pet or two — all consuming what could be helping struggling families in the 3rd world. AND ALL SCIENTISTS DEPEND ON $ from the federal gov’t – often from taxes paid by the dreaded capitalist corporations (in fact many biomedical scientists would enjoy taking intellectual product to market and become dreaded capitalist company owners). Most scientists are also more than willing to take funds from Foundations – funds derived in large part by capitalist endeavors.
So we the public are waiting. When I see the international scientific community leading by example – and giving up travel, energy, and wealth – I will be more willing to listen to their hectoring. I often wonder what behavior it is exactly that they think needs to change? Doesn’t seem to be the behavior they have immediate control over – their own.

Greed – it’s catching

While the discussion over greed in financial institutions rages on – it might be worth it for grantmakers and grantseekers to take some time for introspection about our own tendency to be “greedy.”
For funders it often manifests as wanting too much for too little. In return for a relatively small investment we often want a return of measurable, tangible, meaningful progress on problems that have dogged mankind for centuries.
For grantseekers is manifests as promising alot for a little. I am both amused and annoyed when I read the grandiose claims in a proposal and then flip to the budget. Who knew that the reason we haven’t cured homelessness, cancer, or international warfare was the lack of 2 postdocs and a laptop?
Funders can improve the situation by cleaning up our rhetoric – everything does not have to be novel, innovative, or ground-breaking. Sometimes validating the findings of others, revisiting questions where the common wisdom is actually rather shakily supported, or filling in the small gaps of our knowledge so we have a more seamless and complete understanding of something is enough.
For propspective grantees it might mean admiting that others are working on this same question (LOTS of others) but that your contribution will help – and the postdocs will get a valuable learning exeprience about how to shape and pursue a question – and a new laptop!
We can be less greedy in our expectations and in our promises – and maybe incrementally create a more honest, transparent, authentic style of communication.

When it’s time it’s time…

Foundations often take a hit for investing in programs for limited periods of time and then moving on to “the next new thing.” In some ways this criticism is valid and in some ways not. Foundations can launch funding initiatives with the implicit, or even explicit, notion that their funds will launch new initiatives that will then be sustained by others. For foundations that support scientific research the “others” are usually federal science funders. Of course there is no guarantee that what any one private funder thinks is a great idea will gain widespread acceptance and generous federal support. On the other hand – if it does, that the foundation, usually with limited resources, has little choice but to look for new opportunities. After a period of time, and the rule of thumb decade turns out to not be a terribly bad estimate, the day comes when you re-evaluate the program and its objectives. If there has been little growth or outside interest in the are of scholarship one is trying to stimulate — it might be time to take a hard look at why and decide what continued investment will yield. If the ideas have caught on and funding from multiple sources is available it is not uncommon to see the proposals submitted to a program RFA become more numerous, more duplicative, and more iterative. And when that happens it is time to move on.