October 19, 2012

Risk-aversion in government funding

In a recent issue of Genome Biology, Gregory Petsko published a satiric commentary on the risk of aversion of modern-day government research funding models:
Goodbye, Columbus
Gregory A Petsko

Ferdinand: … Captain Columbus. I assume you’re here to appeal the decision about your proposal.
Columbus: Yes, Your Majesties. I don’t understand why my request for support was turned down.
Isabella (leafing through some documents): Let’s see, let’s see - oh, here it is. ‘Finding a New Route to the Indies by Sailing West.’ (Looking up at him) You’re serious, right? I mean, this isn’t some sort of joke...
Columbus: Of course it’s no joke! I propose to test the hypothesis that the world is both small and round. If the hypothesis is true, I should be able to reach the Orient much faster than the current route around Africa.
Ferdinand: And if the hypothesis is wrong, you’ll fall off the edge of the earth.
Columbus: Possibly. But even if it’s wrong, by going where no one has gone yet, I might bump into something really interesting.
Ferdinand: What you’ll bump into is the edge of the earth, and you’ll fall off.
Columbus: I agree that there is risk involved, Your Majesty, but consider the impact if I’m right. In the guidelines for obtaining funding, you specify that impact is a major factor in determining if a proposal is funded.
Isabella: I know we say that, Captain, but we don’t mean it. Why, if we actually judged proposals that way, many of them would fail.
As you might imagine, he continues to riff on the risk-aversion of these 15th-century royal patrons. Fortunately (at least for US citizens if not Native Americans) the actual funding request worked out better in the real world.

Dr. Petsko is a retired biochemistry professor at Brandeis and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. So this is a personal inspiration as to what sarcastic academics can do in retirement.

Hat tip: Denny Luan, co-founder of Microryza, at the 2012 Open Science Summit in Mountain View.

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