Tuesday, November 11, 2008

This is why large, government-sponsored research is problematic....

It's the same problem with industry-sponsored research: you take their money and they ultimately control what you do.

In this case the Feds are attempting to shut down a CO2 measuring experiment before the scientists actually conducting the research think it's time.

From Duke University:

DURHAM, N.C. -For more than a decade, the federal government has spent millions of dollars pumping elevated levels of carbon dioxide into small groups of trees to test how forests will respond to global warming in the next 50 years.

Some scientists believe they are on the cusp of receiving key results from the time-consuming experiments.

The U.S. Department of Energy, however, which is funding the project, has told the scientists to chop down the trees, collect the data and move on to new research. That plan has upset some researchers who have spent years trying to understand how forests may help stave off global warming, and who want to keep the project going for at least a couple of more years.

"There has been an investment in these experiments and it's a shame we are going to walk away from that investment," said William Chameides, an atmospheric scientist at Duke University, where one of the experimental forests is located. "There is no question that ultimately we want to cut the trees down and analyze the soil. The question is whether now is the time to do it."

Ronald Neilson, a U.S. Forest Service bio-climatologist in Corvallis, Ore., said the experiments should continue because they still have potential to answer key questions about how rainfall and fertility affect how much carbon a forest will store long-term — essential to understanding how forests may soften the blow of climate change.

But the Energy Department, following the advice of a specially convened panel of experts, believes that chopping down the trees and digging up the soil will allow the first real measurements of how much carbon the leaves, branches, trunks and roots have been storing, said J. Michael Kuperberg, a program manager with the agency.

Ending the experiments will also allow the funding to be devoted to new research that will look at the effects of higher temperatures, changes in rainfall, and variations in soil fertility, Kuperberg said.

"What we are trying to do here is balance the time to get optimal results out of the existing experiment with our desire for a new generation of experiments that we feel is more likely to realistically represent future climate scenarios," Kuperberg said.
Some scientists, though, believe ending the long-term research may be a mistake.

"If we stop these experiments now, it could cost many years to get back to this point, time we may not have," Kevin Lee Griffin, associate professor of environmental sciences at Columbia University, wrote in an e-mail

This is a problem that can't just be related to the Bush administration--or even to the sciences alone. When universities and other researchers accept funding from outside sources, that funding always comes with strings attached, and the final decision-making authority--like it or not--is going to remain vested in the folks paying the bills.

The pharmaceutical industry pays for drug trials and researchers understand that they are paying for quick, positive studies, and that their ability to get more funding is contingent on satisfying that need.

The Department of Homeland Security offers Information Technology departments at major universities big grants to develop new facial recognition software, new methodologies for defeating quantum encryption, or even new techniques for data mining. Once delivered, these techniques become proprietary products owned by the State, and whose use is no longer regulated by the citizens. But professors need grants to get promoted, and as long as they are not directly doing research on live human beings, guess what? No university second-guesses the ethics of accepting such money.

Because basic or advanced research in any field now pretty much requires large concentrations of capital, you have to raise the money by meeting somebody else's need. Publicly funded research is no more exempt from these dynamics than privately funded research--perhaps less so--because the government can always declare national security constraints and clamp down the lid.

How does this get fixed?

Good damn question.

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