What makes science research valuable?

The question can further be narrowed to ask when governments should fund scientific research.

People who are critical of government spending often find government funded scientific research projects they deem wasteful and publicize them as examples of government waste. Sometimes the discussions are just political theater but the conversation does raise interesting questions. What is the government’s responsibility when it comes to funding science? What criteria should we follow when determining what is worthwhile and what isn’t?

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has on multiple occasions published lists of projects he thought were wasteful but he also published an interesting list of 20 questions he thought should guide our decisions on which projects deserved government spending.

Questions like:

  • Will this research advance science in a meaningful way?
  • Will the findings advance medicine?
  • Will it improve our national defense?

(You can find the full list here)

You can download his whole document here.

Science Magazine Responds

Analysis: Senator’s attack on ‘cheerleading’ study obscures government’s role in training scientists

Below is a link from Science magazine addressing the Senator Flake’s approach and assumptions.

“More importantly, perhaps, how NSF did spend the money illustrates an important point often lost in the sometimes highly partisan debates over government research spending: Most of those dollars go to educate the next generation of scientists. These students are trained in many disciplines and work on a wide array of projects—some of which might sound dubious to politicians. After graduation they use their knowledge to bolster the U.S. economy, improve public health, protect the nation from its enemies, and maintain U.S. global leadership in science.”


Planet Money Podcast: Shrimp Fight Club

These issues were discussed on a Planet Money Podcast which was adapted from another podcast Undiscovered.


Planet Money Podcast: What does Georgetown owe the descendants of the 272 slaves it sold in 1838?

“In 1838, Jesuit priests sold a group of 272 men, women, and children – slaves – to pay off Georgetown University’s debts. The slaves were sent from Maryland to Louisiana. In part one of this two part episode, we told the story of how the residents of a small town discovered where they’d come from. Now in part two, we ask what, if anything, Georgetown owes the descendants of those slaves.”

Parts One and Two linked below



272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?

This article raises a lot of interesting questions and issues.

The use of documentary evidence to reconstruct past events, motivations and the movement of people raises the question: How do we learn about the past? When there is a gap in the historical record, it’s impossible for us to know certain things. Documents were also used to trace modern day descendants of these slaves who were sold.

This article also raises questions about whether we, presently, have any responsibility for the past actions of our institutions or governments. Can we make amends for the past? Can a moral “debt” be paid off monetarily? Through remembrance? Plaques?

Lastly, this raises the question of what history is worth knowing? When learning history we have to make choices about what to include and what to exclude in addition to the choices we make around interpretation.

You should also read some of the comments for this article because they communicate diverse opinions about these questions.

“In 1838, the Jesuit priests who ran the country’s top Catholic university needed money to keep it alive. Now comes the task of making amends.”

“Meanwhile, Georgetown’s working group has been weighing whether the university should apologize for profiting from slave labor, create a memorial to those enslaved and provide scholarships for their descendants, among other possibilities, said Dr. Rothman, the historian.

“‘It’s hard to know what could possibly reconcile a history like this,’ he said. ‘What can you do to make amends?'”


The Planet Money Podcast recently did two episodes on this question. You can find the links here:




The Experiment Experiment

Reproducibility is a central part of producing knowledge in both the natural and human sciences. Production of knowledge in the sciences is also supposed to be “objective.” What happens when you can produced a statistically significance conclusion but it turns out to be false? What happens when other scientists cannot confirm your conclusions when they try to recreate your experiments? Is it in any way practical to redo others’ experiments consistently?

“How much of published scientific research is false? Scientists are trying to figure it out.”


Planet Money Podcast: Episode 644: How Much Does This Cow Weigh?

An interesting phenomenon that has been proven true many times over but seems so counterintuitive it is hard to believe. When asked to guess the weight of a cow or the number of jelly beans in a jar, often the average of all the guesses is extremely close to the correct answer. Even more accurate than many “experts'” guesses. This is an interesting case in which we can prove something true mathematically but still have a hard time believing. Overall great podcast.


What The IRS Could Learn From Mormons

How does a person’s notion of faith affect their charitable giving? How does it affect how honestly they donate their money? In an interesting Planet Money podcast and accompanying article, economists study how Mormons think about what they give to the church and what they don’t and principles the IRS could learn from them.

“I asked a Mormon bishop in Salt Lake City if a few more rules defining income might make tithing easier on Mormons or bring in more money for the church. He said all this soul-searching about what you owe God is kind of the point.”


How can we measure the effectiveness in charitable giving?

Much of our charitable giving is governed by emotions. We are far more often to give to a cause if the story or cause grabs our attention by moving us emotionally. Sometimes the charities are effective at branding themselves or their cause and sometimes we personally identify with the cause.

There are some people who want to change the way we think about charitable giving by identifying the “return on investment” of each dollar donated rather than letting our emotions decide for us. What happens when we decide to figure out the most effective use of our charitable dollars? How can we measure the impact? What criteria do we look at? Do we focus on saving lives or improving quality of life? Is it possible to even quantify these things?

Much of the approach these people use try to apply mathematical approaches to identify effectiveness. How can we use math to help us determine truth? What are the assumptions built into these mathematical models? Does quantifying this stuff to determine effectiveness dehumanize charitable work?

What if it was “mathematically proven” that the the most effective approach to charity were to give money away with no conditions or strings attached to the recipients? Would your emotional or intuitive revulsion to such an idea keep you from donating? How do you decide what is right when different ways of knowing conflict with one another?

Sometimes people prefer to donate to causes that build tangible structures like schools in foreign countries though it turns out that building schools may not actually that effective based on the cost.

Below are some links to evaluate this topic and these questions.

1. Is It Nuts to Give to the Poor Without Strings Attached?


2. Planet Money Podcast: The Charity That Just Gives People Money


3.Measuring the Bang of Every Donated Buck

Scoring charitable work is evolving from an art into a science


4. Give Well: Real Change for Your Dollar

Homepage for an organization that seeks to quantify the impact of various charities.


5. Smart Aid for the World’s Poor

How can rich countries best help poor ones? Matt Ridley identifies five priorities


6. Freakonomics Podcast:Fixing the World, Bang-for-the-Buck Edition


7.Don’t Build Schools in Afghanistan


8.Poker Players Use Science To Effectively Give To Charities