I attended a set of two panels this morning at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, touting “convergence,” meaning joint work involving engineering and the biological sciences (with other disciplines as well). The scientists were talking their book, which they do with even less subtlety than Wall Street portfolio managers. Although the panelists touted more funding for science, there were a lot of arguments made that suggested that the right issue is not “more” vs. “less” but smart vs. dumb.

1. Alan Guttmacher of NIH said that he gets tremendous resistance from the scientific community in trying to re-orient NIH to be able to fund more innovative forms of research. The existing structure of NIH and its funding methods he regards as anachronistic, but they have developed powerful, determined political constituencies.

2. Keith Yamamoto of the UCSF school of medicine and Tom Kalil of the White House office of science and technology policy both praised funding models that gave administrators at universities a few million dollars each to allocate themselves, using local knowledge, rather than forcing everything through the Federal grant process.

3. Just as a point of information, several of the panelists were part of something called the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, which just opened, seeded by $300 million from the infamous Kochtopus.

If I could affect government science policy, I would distribute some portion of the government research budget through venture capital firms. That is, instead of having the grants approved by a panel of scientific peers centralized in Washington, grants would be approved by venture capital firms dispersed around the country.

VC’s are used to hearing pitches about creative projects. They understand that although you try to fund the most promising teams and ideas, you can get failures.

There is the issue of how to set the goals for the VC firms. I would not think that one could use dollar profit as if they were funding business start-ups, because we are talking about research that could be a long way from leading to any practical implementation. Instead, we would need some other metrics. Surely, there are metrics that one can use to measure the success of research projects (citations by future researchers, for example). Or ex post evaluations by panels of scientists.

I would rather see decentralized funding with centralized metrics for success than the centralized funding that we have now.