She Blinded Me With S̶c̶i̶e̶n̶c̶e̶ Funding

by Rocky Mountain Stepmom

Here’s a discouraging article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed on the way funding agencies can manipulate science. From the article:

I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.

I wouldn’t expect private funding sources to be any better than the government ones. Is there a solution?

The Water Next Time: Professor Who Helped Expose Crisis in Flint Says Public Science Is Broken

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72 thoughts on “She Blinded Me With S̶c̶i̶e̶n̶c̶e̶ Funding

  1. I’m struck by how much Marc Edwards reminds me of Harry Markopolos (the Madoff whistle blower) – just enough of a weirdo that everyone discounts what they are saying.

  2. You know, I’m not sure it’s so much academia blinded by greed, and more about his “50 epidemiologists say it’s safe.” If I’m looking to do some ground-breaking research and make my name in academia, I’m probably not going to start by double-checking an area where there is already a lot of data and studies that say X. I’m going to choose something that hasn’t been investigated, or that has more of a split down the middle.

    It’s funny, I have been doing regulatory geeky defense work for 25 years now, and I actually have more faith in “the system” and people than when I started. Because every time I run across something that has gone really horribly wrong (i.e., criminal), I am amazed at how many layers of bad things all had to fall in line for that to occur — one question here, a different answer there, and one of the many checks and balances kicks in and catches it. Yes, there are bad actors out there, and decent people who respond to bad incentives, but by and large companies are highly conscious of what being on the front page of the NYT would do to their stock prices, and so they build in a lot of process and approvals that catch stuff well before it escalates to this kind of level.

    I suspect here (but do not know — not my area) that the real systemic flaw here is the multiple-regulator scenario, with unclear lines of responsibility and authority. At least in a company, you can tag a particular person or group with decision rights and the responsibility if something gets screwed up — and if you’re that guy, you know your ass is on the line, and so you’re going to do your best to second-guess and double-check. It’s actually much harder to catch mistakes when there are multiple people with different layers of authority and no single person with decision rights — it’s always “well, I thought XX was going to. . . .” That’s when questionable conclusions don’t get scrutinized and critical decisions fall between the cracks.

  3. Here is the timeline:

    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/21/us/flint-lead-water-timeline.html

    It looks like the first notice of the lead issue was 2/18/15. 3/12/15 Veolia reports back that water meets state and federal guidelines. More high lead levels then more data comes in saying the level is below the 15 parts per billion EPA limit. 9/2/15 Edwards says there’s a problem 10/1/15 residents urged not to drink the water.

    How much faster were they expecting the decision to spend millions to happen with that much conflicting information?

  4. “I suspect here (but do not know — not my area) that the real systemic flaw here is the multiple-regulator scenario, with unclear lines of responsibility and authority.”

    This is definitely part of the problem. Another part is the lack of funding to support the regulatory agencies. The government pass regulations that the regulatory agencies have to regulate. But the State/Feds doesn’t always increase the amount of funding to those agencies to support the hiring of more inspectors or others who regulate the regulations. If the state has a handful of inspectors to make sure each permit (sometimes hundreds of permits per regulation) is in compliance, things fall through the cracks. Should that have happened? No. But if you have a permit that requires regular testing, and you don’t do the testing, it may take some time before the regulatory agency catches up. Combine that with two levels of regulation – state and federal – and the mess compounds.

    The funding issues of academia is why I left before I began. Chasing money that is ever dwindling, and jumping through the hoops necessary (is your research sexy? does it impact commerce? can you create an outreach program for the public?) makes it next to impossible to get a grant. There’s less money out there for humdrum things (like environmental monitoring necessary to make sure states are in compliance with regulations; or long term studies to really analyze changes of the ecosystem related to climate change or pollution reduction mandates), even though those humdrum things are important.

    This article makes me happy I’m in a non-regulatory agency. But I’m sad because this article points out a lot of what I’ve had to learn when I took my job 1.5 years ago.

  5. “the multiple-regulator scenario, with unclear lines of responsibility and authority”

    This seems to have been the case in Flint re: the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak. Unclear lines with each entity protecting its fiefdom.

    Same re: Belgium. Brussels alone has 12 districts that each oversee a part of the city with conflicting lines, overlapping roles and a whole lot of bad to no coordination.

  6. “How much faster were they expecting the decision to spend millions to happen with that much conflicting information?”

    I wonder if it has to do more with the decision to connect to the Flint River without properly testing the river to see how corrosive it was or putting safeguards in place to reduce the corrosive nature of the river. The timeline, to me, seems to be missing what happened prior to Sept 2014.

    Additionally, I understand where the EPA was coming from – one house does not mean an epidemic. But, GM stopped using the water because it was corroding equipment. That would cause me, as a scientist, to pause and say “maybe it isn’t the house’s pipes.” Unfortunately, the time line doesn’t say if GM notified EPA of their issues (or the city, or MIDEQ).

  7. My speciality wasn’t potable municipal water systems, but I would think part of the feasibility study to connect Flint to the new water system would include an analysis of the water quality and the infrastructure to determine if there was an issue between the chemistry of the water and the materials in the pipes.

    I still think the critical issue was that there was no accountability for the people who decided it would be a good idea to hook Flint up to a new water supply without doing the basic research.

  8. Given where I live, I have fairly frequent conversations about the perverse incentives of funded research both with well-regarded tenured professors and would-have-been professors working in industry. Our former state climatologist was forced to retire under our previous governor for publicly questioning the certainty of the science underpinning the governor’s climate change policy proposal. Our local land grant has a very well-regarded college of oceanography and atmospheric science and many of us conservatives thought the governor’s action against the climatologist was extremely inappropriate, but we mostly get governors supported by the people of Portland, who are not, on average, conservatives.

  9. I think Rhett’s link is illuminating, too — yes, people were complaining about the water from the beginning, but the early concerns were bacteria, which is a completely separate issue and I think requires different treatment. Then you get high lead readings from an individual house, but order-of-magnitude-lower readings from the water system itself — so does that mean there’s something wrong with the water/water system itself, or does that one house have a specific issue (like lead pipes, or pipes with lead solder in them, which I think a lot of houses used even after lead pipes themselves were replaced with other materials)? You have to expect some time to figure out the cause of the problem, because different causes require different solutions — the question is really whether they figured out soon enough that they needed to start looking. It seems like the real problem here was that the state’s testing method was wrong, so I’d be interested to know when the EPA guy’s report was sent over to the state — you put that together with the reports from the houses and it’s a lot harder to write it off as an isolated incident.

  10. But, GM stopped using the water because it was corroding equipment. That would cause me, as a scientist, to pause and say “maybe it isn’t the house’s pipes.”

    But, March 12, 2015 Veolia, a consultant group hired by Flint, reports that the city’s water meets state and federal standards.

  11. “I still think the critical issue was that there was no accountability for the people who decided it would be a good idea to hook Flint up to a new water supply without doing the basic research.”

    I thought that was driven by politics and cost issues? I.e., the city had no money, and Detroit was holding them hostage with exorbitant water rates, so they had to look elsewhere? The fact that Detroit offered to cut their rates after the city had invested in its own treatment plant was way too little too late.

    I’m not particularly upset about the decision to change, because you can always design your treatment system to treat the incoming water. I am just wondering how in the heck they didn’t get enough data on the river water to design/manage the corrosive effects properly from the start. But that may come back to the EPA comment about the test method the city was using — if they weren’t using the right test methods, their data would have told them that the system was properly designed and functioning normally.

  12. no accountability for the people who decided it would be a good idea to hook Flint up to a new water supply without doing the basic research.”

    The state-appointed emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools, who had also managed the city of Flint and oversaw its decision to draw its water from the Flint River, resigned on Tuesday, the day before a congressional committee hearing in Washington on Flint’s water.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/03/us/flints-former-manager-resigns-as-head-of-detroit-schools.html

  13. I have gotten NSF and other funding (not huge amounts, but something) and have been on a number of review panels that evaluate proposals. People have no idea the level of perfection that is required on those proposals. And pure simple luck. On a typical panel, we will look at maybe 30 proposals, exhaustively. Usually only one, maybe two, get recommended. We look at the track record of the PI and co-PI’s, so there is heavy bias to fund people who are well known. We look at budgets, plans to store and disseminate data, plans to do outreach, impact on social goals (called “broader impacts” in NSF-ese), ties to other work, etc, etc. There is major bias to fund safe proposals that hit all the right, expected points. Much of the work is typically done before writing the proposal, in fact. I am friendly with some of the program directors, who have told me that they feel a lot of pressure because they know they are making or breaking people’s careers. The system has become quite hellish.

    A few years ago, I had chance to read a proposal for a charter school, an effort that was being taken seriously in some quarters. I was shocked to see how poorly it was written in comparison to the proposals I was used to reviewing on panels. Hazy, no concrete plans – it never would have survived an NSF panel, in fact, it would have been ranked at the bottom. It made me wonder if proposal writing in the K12 world is much laxer.

  14. Mooshi – I have seen a charter school proposal like you describe, and it was a total mess, but gained approval from the state and then received DOE funding based on the state approval.

  15. @Mooshi — this is how my mom got roped into the development work at her college: she was very, very good at writing grant proposals and knew how to revise others’ to improve their chances of funding, so what started as doing favors for friends ultimately morphed into the school giving her a partial course release and paying her to review/edit grant applications as a part-time job. It will be interesting to see what happens now that the new President has decided that his admin can manage the grant applications in her spare time. . . .

  16. “But, March 12, 2015 Veolia, a consultant group hired by Flint, reports that the city’s water meets state and federal standards.”

    Rhett – be fair, the rest of that quote states “it does not report specifically on lead levels.” If the report did not specifically address lead, then the report cannot be used to say that lead levels were in compliance. Remember, gov’t has to go to court with the documents it uses to say if something is in compliance. And if the document does not report on a specific metric, it cannot be used to address the compliance of that metric.

    Mooshi – I’ve sat on some local panels for regional grants – the ones that are a mess are quickly thrown out. And we feel bad too, because those groups are usually the ones who need the money the most.

  17. If the report did not specifically address lead, then the report cannot be used to say that lead levels were in compliance.

    Sure it can. If it says “meets state and federal standards” if there is a state or federal lead standard (and their is) then that statement indicates compliant lead levels.

  18. DH has served on both government and private foundation grant proposal review panels. He says they are inundated with tons of proposals of highly variable quality. And most of the reviewers are very busy academics/professionals who are serving under duress (as in, if you want another grant from this entity in the future, you’d better agree to serve on a review panel). So mainstream projects get funded, but so do outlier proposals that, for whatever reason, someone on the panel who has enough time to read every supporting document really wants to support. Every so often some politicians will publicize a list of ridiculous government-funded research projects, but there are even more ridiculous projects that thankfully get axed before the committee meets.

    All research requires funding by third parties, most funding is limited, and the people best qualified to decide among competing proposals are those who are experts in that discipline. Not sure how one would design a better system for making funding decisions.

  19. “Sure it can. If it says “meets state and federal standards” if there is a state or federal lead standard (and their is) then that statement indicates compliant lead levels.”

    Maybe in MI, but not in RI. In RI, that report would have to read “compliant for the state and federal standards tested.” If the report did not specify lead, it could not be used for lead. A lawyer would walk right through that report, say what I did, and the state would be held accountable. Basically, a broad stroke statement “meets state and federal standards” would not work – it has to address lead, bacteria, nitrate, or other parameters of concern.

  20. Milo – I read that this a.m. He makes $400K per year from his blog (not surprising but jeesh!)

  21. “I read that this a.m. He makes $400K per year from his blog (not surprising but jeesh!)”

    I figured as much a year or so ago when he started recommending Betterment.

  22. Rhett – I could see the appeal of the hotel thing only if it were something more like the Ritz Carlton residences–just something a little more permanent. I’m not that picky, but hotel pillows are always too squishy for me; they crush down to nothing, whereas I want more of a foam support. Mattresses are usually just OK, but you’d have to go five star to get something comparable to what we have at home.

  23. Off topic – just heard Maggie Smith interviewed by Dave Davies on Fresh Air, and thought of you all, since you’re how I heard of Downton. She’s terrific, and man, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more humble famous person in my life. She deflects every compliment to someone else. “Oh, well, it’s Julian’s terrific writing that gave me those lines.” “Ah, Penelope Winton is such a delight to work with.” Etc.

    Okay, back to your science chat, to which I add no value. Except to say, about Flint: OMFG, what a cluster****. (Making my mother proud with each sentence, aren’t I?)

  24. but hotel pillows are always too squishy for me

    Many hotels, like the W for instance, offer a pillow menu.

  25. Here it is:

    I’d rather mull over the exchange between Lord Robert and his sister Rosamunde over dinner after the crash: “It was a bloody awful business,” he blusters, “a bloody, bloody awful business.” “The English language never lets you down,” she snarks. “Oh, shut up,” he says, suddenly furious, seemingly as much at himself for the inadequacy of his description as at her for pointing it out.

  26. Dave told her everyone’s fave line of hers is, “What is a weekend?”

    She said she has no fave line, but liked best when the Dowager sat in her first swivel chair and was offended that it moved.

    I always liked Mary’s line, that you all talked about here: “I’m going upstairs to take off my hat.”

  27. I tried to watch a few episodes of War and Peace and I really couldn’t get into it. It’s amazing how much of a genius Julian Fellows is in terms or writing, casting, etc. When you watch another show trying to do the same thing and it’s just terrible, it gives you a new appreciation for those will real talent.

  28. From that article about MMM:

    As a kid, Adeney earned five bucks every time he mowed the family’s half-acre of lawn. He soaked the bills in soap and water, then ironed them and put them in a photo album.

    Ooookay.

  29. The Michigan state offices (Dept of Technology, Management and Budget) in Flint installed special bottled water machines and sent an email to employees in January 2015 that despite statements by local officials that the water was safe to drink they should feel free to avoid drinking local water. You can look it up.

  30. “Except to say, about Flint: OMFG, what a cluster****. (Making my mother proud with each sentence, aren’t I?)”

    @Ris — completely off-topic, but my mother’s 50th bday present to me was a mug on the proper use of the English language, which if I am competent you can see here: http://imgur.com/vc3A4WU.

    At least my mother would be proud of you.

  31. Rocky – I was more more bothered by the way the kid, already sensitive and reclusive, and now homeschooled, has to go through all that handwringing over spending the little bit of money to go to the Magic card trading party.

    MMM gets to be king of his adoring social circle, but the rest of them have to endure the fanaticism without any social acclaim.

  32. Milo,

    That and A bruising fight with his partner ensued. In the end, the ordeal cost Adeney several hundred thousand dollars and untold hours of sleep. I get the impression that without the blog income that might have been the end of his experiment.

  33. I was more more bothered by the way the kid, already sensitive and reclusive, and now homeschooled, has to go through all that handwringing over spending the little bit of money to go to the Magic card trading party.

    Totally. Reminds me of an earlier frugality guru, Amy Dacyczyn, who also wound up homeschooling her six children because she didn’t want them exposed to nasty consumerism and absolutely had a nervous breakdown about giving one of her daughters a Rainbow Brite doll. She too made a fortune selling her Tightwad Gazette books and newsletters and then didn’t know what to do with the money so she just retreated even further into her own tightwad universe. I was like, GIVE THE CHILD THE DAMN DOLL.

  34. Rhett – perhaps, but it would not have taken him very long working to recover that money and retire again.

  35. but it would not have taken him very long working to recover that money and retire again.

    You think he would thrived back at the cube farm? I don’t.

  36. He thrived at the cube farm the first time well enough to get promoted & make some $$. I’m with Milo.

    RMS – I vaguely remember the Tightwad Gazette but had no idea about that backstory!

  37. He thrived at the cube farm the first time well enough to get promoted & make some $$.

    I’m going with he’d be like one of those professionally successful SAHMs who have to go back to work after 10 years. It’s not easy getting back to what you made when you left.

  38. Yeah, I get your point. Even moreso in his industry. But he was only a year out at the point of the house incident wasn’t he?

  39. “You think he would thrived back at the cube farm? I don’t.”

    Thrive? All you have to do is show up. It’s not rocket science.

  40. Milo,

    If he thought it was easy he wouldn’t have extended such a huge effort to get away from it as soon as he could. It goes even more so when he’s had ten years of freedom and ten years to get set in his ways.

  41. I love the Downton episode this week. It reminded me why I love this show. I can’t stand Carson any more, and I won’t miss him. SO many classic scenes and lines in this episode, but I just keep hearing, “you’re a bitch”.

  42. Rhett – if he had been the kind of early retirement guru who worked for only six months out of college before quitting and pursuing beekeeping or something, I’d agree with you, but he played the game well for 10 years, getting decent advancement along the way. He would have been fine going back for three years or so.

  43. He would have been fine going back for three years or so.

    Not nearly long enough to make back the +300k he lost on his real estate business.

  44. Milo and Rhett – so many of his followers are like that too, haaaaaaate working for The Man and can’t wait to get out.

    Milo, I agree re: the Magic cards. You can’t spend the $25 to help the kid socially?

  45. “Not nearly long enough to make back the +300k he lost on his real estate business.”

    Wasn’t he making $150?

    Live on 30, pay whatever in taxes, and it’s three years that the invested funds are generating dividends that you’re not spending. And if not, four years.

    L – people who want to be religious fanatics about something (and that’s what he is) owe it to their kids at least be religious fanatics about something like an actual religion, so that the kids can have friends with something in common. And if you’re not going to do that, at least give him some siblings.

  46. Milo,

    And he lost his shirt in the financial crisis so he’d be a guy with a multi year resume gap trying to get a job during a giant recession.

    It’s interesting that all the people that I know in real life who are like him have done the same thing. All those carefully scrimped and saved pennies ended up getting pissed away on some dubious investment.

  47. That article made me a bit sad for MMM’s son. And I can’t really imagine wanting to spend time socializing with MMM–it seems like it would be deeply unpleasant. But of course I imagine he’s only really spending time with people who buy into his schtick.

  48. “And he lost his shirt in the financial crisis so he’d be a guy with a multi year resume gap trying to get a job during a giant recession.”

    Not to go all MMM on you here, but he could have worked as a shift manager at McDonald’s and earned his living expenses while the investments took a few years to recover.

  49. Milo,

    Guy scrimps and saves to retire at 30
    then losses all of it in an ill timed real
    estate investment and market turmoil and is now working at McDonalds is hardly a compelling narrative.

    I think his MMM plan wouldn’t have actually worked if it wasn’t for the blog income.

    * His portfolio of 600k fell by half during the financial crisis and he lost “several hundred thousand” on the real estate deal. Doesn’t that leave him broke?

  50. Why would MMM want to change anything? He has a compliant intelligent wife, a child to mold (and love, I expect – he is a crank not an ogre) , adoring fans locally and around the world, plenty of money (in his case for keeping score rather than sustenance or self-indulgence) and all the craft beer he would like within walking distance from his home in a natural paradise. Junior will likely be outtathere at 18, and since MMM ideologically will not allow any golden handcuffs or inheritance, he won’t have any tools to control the child in adulthood, and likely not much interest, since as he said kids are a lot of work and expense. His only risk is that his wife decides enough is enough and chooses to make a break for the sake of herself and the kid, and then he will lose half of the assets he doesn’t spend, be unencumbered in his life quest and free to pursue the young female adherents described in the article.

  51. Meme,

    I wonder about that. In many of the posts by him and others it all comes down to “owning your time.” Having the freedom to do what you want when you want. If he really cares about his son, which I think he does, and he has millions: Why not transition some of the money to his son so he can own his time as well? I could see that happening.

  52. MMM on FB:

    The article is very inaccurate about our handling of stuff like participation in expensive activities, and paying for his university tuition in the future if applicable.
    The real philosophy is this: “Our family has plenty of money for anything and we’ve got your back no matter what you decide to do. But part of our job is to pass on the idea of critical judgement on society’s expectations: just because everyone else is doing or buying something, doesn’t mean it is worth pursuing yourself.”
    I want him to understand that if you don’t like the rules, and you have a better idea, you don’t have to comply with those rules or even disobey them. You can HELP WRITE NEW RULES.

  53. “you don’t have to comply with the rules” << MMM is not a hoop-jumper. :) I agree with Rhett that he may share the wealth with his son – otherwise this non-compliance will become an issue!

  54. Rhett – The point about McDonald’s is that there would have been many ways for him to achieve the goal. And I think your timing is off. Blogs don’t make any money until they really take off, and he was living the life and blogging about it for years before his blog would have made any real money. Also, the loss of the couple hundred thousand from the broken partnership may not have been finalized, but he was sitting on the loss of capital for all that time when it wasn’t generating anything.

  55. Any Audible Readers out there? You might be interested in their deal of the day. Some of us are familiar with the author.

  56. CofC,

    Based on the FB comment it doesn’t seem like MMM would be all that opposed to dynastic wealth(on his terms). Think of it as sort of Longmont Abbey: an estate passed down through the generations, nurtured and grown in a responsible manner, so that everyone gets to enjoy the freedom of “own[ing] their time.”

  57. FWIW, I think this is where he discusses that house deal — http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2012/02/01/mr-money-mustaches-big-mistake/. This looks like, like many bad deals, it was a small trickle at first that was sustainable under cash flow (@$3K carrying costs vs. $2K rental income), and he just never got his share of losses back from his partner; he did have to pull @$400K cash to make the sale, but he sold for $450K, so I’m not sure he ever “lost” a big chunk of capital at once. So I think I agree with Milo that he probably would have weathered this without the blog or going back to work.

  58. “it doesn’t seem like MMM would be all that opposed to dynastic wealth(on his terms). ”

    I agree with that. People slowly evolve on their values in cases like this. No way is he just giving it all away.

  59. I know a friend who has tried to go the MMM route but hasn’t cut out the family expenses and is in a high COL area. The result is make money, take a break from work, own their time but no income generating activities from what I see, then feel the need for money so go back to work. Is in the same line of work as MMM and seems to have a similar personality.

  60. Agreed, Milo. Not that I spend any time hanging around the mustache forums, but if I had, I would’ve noticed that no one likes to give their money away. There’s actually been some long threads about how you can’t give any money to charity because they will spend it on stupid things. It’s hard to save $.10 here in $.10 there and then allow it to go to a place where they might pay retail for supplies.

  61. “It’s hard to save $.10 here in $.10 there and then allow it to go to a place where they might pay retail for supplies.”

    Exactly. Or like the reports about the Wounded Warrior Project spending on staff parties and retreats, first-class travel, etc.

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