... the biggest threat to science has been quietly occurring under the radar, even though it may be changing the very foundation of American innovation. The threat is money-specifically, the decline of government support for science and the growing dominance of private spending over American research.
In 1965, the federal government financed more than 60 percent of all R&D in the United States. By 2006, the balance had flipped, with 65 percent of R&D in this country being funded by private interests.
That's the complaint in a story by Jennifer Washburn in this month's Discover magazine on "Science's Worst Enemy: Corporate Funding ."
I haven't checked her figures, but I doubt that the government ever funded two-thirds of US R&D; a more reasonable figure is the 40% today. But worse than the math is the author's implicit assumption that socializing the country's research and development investments is a good thing -- that private investments reflect a for-profit bias while government investments are "pure" and "untainted." Washburn fears that "if the balance tips too far, the 'public interest' side of the science system-known for its commitment to independence and objectivity-will atrophy."
Some would question the "commitment to independence and objectivity" of federal researchers and those enjoying their largesse. Rather than rehearse the numerous and egregious examples, I'd suggest a simple reflection on the wisdom of our Founding Fathers in setting up a government recognizing that every person and institution has self-interests. The question is how they pursue them and how we can sort through competing interests to get the truth upon which to base our decisions and public policies.
In the salt area, we badly need explicit "evidence-based" policy based not on passion and emotion, but on replicable, quality science. We need to look at evidence to answer the question: would reducing population salt intakes improve health? It turns out that virtually all the studies in this area are government-funded. While often characterized by government-convened "expert" groups, the actual research does not find a health outcomes benefit to salt reduction .
Without doubt, corporate-funded research employed to support public policy deserves to be held to the highest standard and its analysis held to the standards of the Data Quality Act. So, too, does government-funded research. There should be no comfort taken -- nor relief granted -- to conclusions of government-funded scientists because they work for "the public." Sorry, Jennifer.
Reading Gina Kolata's New York Times book review of Gary Taubes' new book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, I'm struck that the book is really two-in-one. The first "book" is the heavily-researched and compellingly-argued critique of the scientific foundation of current dietary guidance. As Kolata summarizes his argument: "nutrition and public policy research and policy have been driven by poor science and a sort of pigheaded insistence on failed hypotheses." Sounds like the sodium and health debate to me. Kolata says "much of what Taubes relates will be eye-opening to those who have not closely followed the science, or lack of science, in this area." The second "book" is Taubes argument favoring low-carb diets.
I fear too many may neglect the impeccable research buttressing "book one" if they don't accept Taubes' answer to the narrower question of the role of carbohydrate, fat and protein as causes of heart disease. That would be a great loss. "Book one" is a great stand-alone read and a devastating critique of the "consensus" method - as opposed to an "evidence-based" method - of formulating dietary recommendations.
Taubes concludes: "From the inception of the diet-heart hypothesis in the early 1950s, those who argued that dietary fat caused heart disease accumulated the evidential equivalent of a mythology to support their belief. These myths are still passed on faithfully to the present day." Kolata adds: "The story is similar for salt and blood pressure, and for dietary fiber and cancer," concluding "Taubes convincingly shows that much of what is believed about nutrition and health is based on the flimsiest science."
There's much more in Taubes' 450-page book. Make sure you read at least "book one."
Gary Taubes' new book prompted a second article in The New York Times in which NYT science writer John Tierney explains how the science underlying our dietary guidelines departed so sharply from quality science. He attributes it to the process of soliciting "expert opinion" and declares the process an "informational cascade" where an initial error is compounded and implanted as policy as successive "experts" sign-on.
"Cascades are especially common in medicine as doctors take their cues from others, leading them to overdiagnose some faddish ailments (called bandwagon diseases) and overprescribe certain treatments (like the tonsillectomies once popular for children)." Tierney recounts several of Taubes' examples, in particular that eating fat has produced an epidemic of heart disease. The original hypothesis was embraced by politicians (Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) and President Jimmy Carter's USDA activist Carol Tucker Foreman leading to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and, eventually, today, to the Food Guide Pyramid. Unconvinced scientists were intimidated by politicians and the media; Tierney quotes economist Timur Kuran's description as "a reputational cascade, in which it becomes a career risk for dissidents to question the popular wisdom." Taubes' book includes the anecdote of an exchange of a prominent nutrition scientist responded to Sen. McGovern when McGovern asked him why he refused to accept the conclusions of "92% of the world's leading doctors." The scientist called for policy based on science, not "by anything that smacks of a Gallup poll."