How Science Happens

We live in a strange moment in time. On the one hand, our lives are saturated with science and its fruits. We fly through the air in giant jetliners, routinely take medicines for aliments which would have killed previous generations, and have all the world’s information at our fingertips via computers we carry in our pockets.

On the other hand, while we’re enjoying these benefits of science, the remarkable phenomena of science denial is also on the rise. Some folks have no problem acting as if they can decide for themselves which science is true, and which isn’t. From climate denial to anti-vaxx activists, the consequences of such willful ignorance are already being played out on front pages.

Given the simultaneous embrace and denial of science in the modern world, I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a little window into one critical aspect of how science actually works:

How does research get funded?

I want to address that question not in the broad sense, but how it might apply to one case in particular: How does any individual science project, done by any individual scientist, get funded? If you want to study how a particular species of fish swims, how a particular kind of tornado forms, or why some particular viruses only infect badgers, then where do you get the money for it?

The answer, in large part, is you write a proposal to the government.

Recently I was asked to read astronomy proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF)—one of many institutions in the U.S. that funds science. Others include the National Institutes for Health and the Department of Energy. The NSF does not get as much splashy press as its cousin NASA, but without a doubt it is one of the jewels of American civilization. My research group has had NSF funding for two decades, and it’s helped us train undergrads, graduate students, and post-docs. It also let us make cool simulations of interacting binary stars like this, this, and this.

Making a proposition

So, what is a proposal? In my field of astrophysics, researchers who have projects they want to carry out must write a super-detailed 15-page description of their proposed work. These proposals must include an argument for why the study is important, what will be learned, why they’re the ones to carry the project to success and, finally, how the work will have impact beyond just astronomy.

It takes a lot of time to write one of these proposals as they become small research projects in themselves.

It also takes a lot of time to read them carefully, and that’s where I came in. Once an institution like the NSF gets a bunch these proposals, they ask scientists like me to help review them. It’s a lot of work because you need to read carefully to understand both the background science (it’s not always in your own direct field of research) and the intent of the proposed work. Of course, scientists don’t have to say “yes” when an agency like the NSF asks them to participate in a review, but we all know it’s necessary for the good of the community.

I was only one of a bunch of people the NSF called together to form a “review panel,” and each of us had our proposals to read. We wrote up reports on the proposals we read, and then submitted them back to the NSF. The next step was to all get together for two days of very intense discussion. Our job was to review the reviews and decide which proposals were worthy of getting funded. We had to judge, as best we could, which science was so compelling that it had to be carried forward.

So, does it all work? Does this kind of peer review produce good science? My answer is a definitive, absolute, and unqualified yes. I have been on many such review panels, and I almost get choked up when I think about the process. It’s so profoundly human—a bunch of people in a room committed to an ideal and, in spite of all their flaws and imperfections, doing their best to achieve something important.

With these review panels, we’re trying to decide how to allocate scarce resources based on an impartial assessment of evidence presented. Times are tight, and there are way more excellent proposals than funds. That means difficult choices must be made, and I have always come away from these experiences surprised and proud of my colleagues.

So how does science get funded? By people working really hard to ensure that the process is fair and accurate, and that the best rise to the top. That includes the folks who work at agencies like the NSF (who are scientists themselves) and the researchers they ask to participate in the panels.

It’s not a perfect system, but time and again it works. That in itself makes it a process everyone should know about.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester.