How Academic Fads Harm Research

Clean Energy Is the New Nanotech Is the New Biotech Is the New…

Before Facebook, there was Friendster.

You do remember Friendster, don’t you? The social networking site connected people before Facebook escaped the Ivy League and gave users the first opportunities to broadcast Too Much Information before you could tweet it. Friendster was a beta version of Web 2.0; yet I can’t remember the last time anyone used it. As indispensable as Facebook and Twitter seem now, they may all go the way of other dot-com flame outs like Altavista, Kosmo.com and Napster, residing in that part of our memories we only use to answer trivia questions.

Unfortunately, academic research seems to follow a similar trajectory to that of high-tech start-ups and pop culture. Remember biotechnology? Gene therapy promised to hold the potential to cure all manner of disease, including cancer. The promise of miraculous technologies like gene therapy that would stitch up our medical problems motivated Congress to double the level of funding going to the National Institutes of Health during the late-1990s to the mid-2000s in the hopes of spurring a “biotech revolution”. Yet, in the midst of a nationwide debate over healthcare reform, no one seems to be currently touting the fruits of NIH.

Remember nanotechnology? The ability to manipulate matter at the molecular and atomic level was supposed to lead to unthinkable materials with incredible properties, to nanomachines able to reconstruct nearly any object imaginable. Nanotechnology was the next big field, and funds flowed copiously toward them earlier this decade. Yet the most notable applications of nanotechnology remain limited to products like auto-tinting eyeglasses and antibacterial plastics, a far cry from the fantastic nano-assembly lines that floated in front of our eyes.

The political, cultural, and economic zeitgeist says the research flavor of the moment is all things clean energy. As a professor put it, just do the Harvard Business School short sell — find out what industry HBS grads are flocking to and short it under the assumption it will crash in five years. That industry is currently clean energy. More conveniently for professors, energy research comes in all forms: coding software for smart grids, developing electronics for smart homes, machining mechanical bits for electric vehicles, and chemical engineering for more efficient turbines.

As part of the Department of Energy’s new “Energy Frontier Research Centers” (EFRCs), MIT was awarded over $36 million for the establishment of two research centers at the Institute, one in excitonics and the other in solid-state physics. What these topics specifically have to do with energy is not obvious. MIT’s official press release states that Professor Marc Baldo’s Center for Excitonics “aims to understand the transport of charge carriers in synthetic disordered systems, which hold promise as new materials for converting solar energy to electricity and for electrical energy storage.” Similarly, Professor Gang Chen’s newly created center is “to create novel solid-state materials for the conversion of sunlight and heat into electricity.”

Not ten years ago these centers would have been hailed as the latest push into the then-novel and exciting field of nanotechnology. The lay taxpayer may not understand the technical syntax of “synthetic disordered systems” or “novel solid-state materials” nor their connections to other fields, but professors and their graduate students certainly do. Before these research projects were supported by the sexy and amply-funded nanotechnology hype, MIT’s new research centers would have instead played footsie with fields like microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) or solid state devices in order to cozy up to some hot funding source.

The professional grant writers called “professors” sell these sometimes tenuous connections as much as they can. Some years ago, only after a professor concluded his PowerPoint presentation — containing a slide with no less than nine instances of the “nano-” prefix — did he secretly confide to me that he was really not doing any different kind of research but merely packaging his experiments to the tastes of the day. Everyone did it. As a research professor, if you didn’t play the game, the funding was going elsewhere and you lost out.

The money behind MIT’s EFRCs is going to the same kinds of research that would have been performed regardless. On the margins, there might be some changes in priorities and slight deviations of project goals but on the whole, who doubts that these principal investigators would not have received some sort of funding from the National Science Foundation or the Institute’s favorite government patron, the Department of Defense? And is the Recovery Act’s stimulus money really going to research that stimulates the economy? The money may come from different pots, the project managers different people, and the proposal summaries coded with different buzzwords, but as a matter of survival, the research stays the same.

The new federal investment in energy research is being mistakenly disbursed as well. Massive funds from both the stimulus and a higher public awareness of energy issues have pushed money into energy research. But these monies often serve existing parochial purposes (i.e. politicians’ constituents) rather than far-sighted national objectives. Instead of funding the energy research incubator “Baby Bells” — the small clusters of innovation laboratories Secretary of Energy Chu trumpeted during his spring MIT visit — legislators have divvied up the money among mediocre and disparate research institutions in their own districts. Less effective and more forgettable research will be the result.

The first victims of such funding whiplash are our long-term research interests, something our current institutions are unable to coherently achieve. NIH’s massive increase in funding biotechnology was ill-met with a slow ramping up of building of laboratory space by universities and training by departments. Everyone competed with one another at precisely the same time and too many long-term projects were mismanaged. Universities are now stuck with empty lab space and fewer accepted grant proposals.

The other victim of funding whiplash is the public. Politicians react to urgent science and technology issues by sending funds into research areas which sometimes, like NIH and biotechnology, lack the capacity to respond. Seasoned professors adept in the funding game adapt to the new bubbles. Research continues apace under a new banner. Other research more directly relevant may get funding but five or ten years down the line political priorities will necessitate an about-face, as in nanotechnology and energy. Either way, the taxpayer wonders about the promises made about funding [insert field here], if the taxpayer even remembers at all.

Absent overwhelming motivations like war, I’m frankly skeptical that any American government would be able to sufficiently insulate research from politics. But if we are to succeed in reaching our long-term goals — landing a man on Mars, curing cancer, creating a new energy infrastructure — we need to halt the frantic scramble to the new New Thing.  The drain on resources, in venture capital, taxpayer money, 24-hour news airtime, and just plain mindshare, is unproductive. Not only will government need to be more consistent in their science research funding but professors should be more honest and transparent about the potential benefits of their efforts, to proposal committees and the public at large.

Only if President Obama can credibly direct our research efforts over an extended and sustained period, rather than the haphazard and inconsistent support that politics creates, will we produce the innovative infrastructure our society needs for vital technologies like clean energy.

Otherwise we will continue to use our technological research capacity like we used Friendster.

Gary Shu is a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.