Richard Weinberg responds in a Martin Center column to concerns about the state of scientific research.

As a neurobiologist working at a local university for more than 30 years, I read Edward Archer’s provocative critique of scientific research with interest. We agree about a number of problems in the scientific enterprise, arising both from flaws inherent in people and from the sometimes-damaging pressures from funders and administrators whose goals aren’t focused on scientific discovery. Nevertheless, I believe Archer is mistaken in his main claim: U.S. science is not in intellectual decline, and evidence for moral decline is weak.

Most basic research in the biomedical sciences is supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and led by professors who have received NIH grant awards for investigator-initiated research projects. Typically, a principal investigator (PI) experiences severe pressures, driven by the quest for discovery, as well as the need to get research funding (and often the desire for academic promotion).

Those pressures can be damaging to the PI and their staff and family, and may lead a few unbalanced scientists to engage in misconduct and commit fraud. The researcher’s university can drive much of that pressure. Over the past 50 years, research universities have become more and more reliant on the incidental government subsidies provided by the NIH to cover the “indirect costs” Archer mentions, as well as the “direct costs” that help to pay the salaries of academic scientists and their staff.

Not surprisingly, department chairs, deans, and others in the administration are eager for faculty to get more NIH money, and some researchers may spend more time chasing funding than doing research. However, Archer overstates the problem. Excessive “grantsmanship” is a real problem, but while it affects research faculty, it has little impact on students or their education.

Indirect costs may seem a cushy and perhaps illicit subsidy from the NIH, but biomedical research really does require buildings, libraries, technical services, personnel management, and many other services with real costs.