The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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Punching Above Our Weight: Not Actually a Good Thing

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There is an oft-repeated phrase you might hear if you hang around disgruntled scientists for long enough, and it’s that “Australian science really punches above its weight.” I certainly heard or read it dozens of times while doing research for science policy, and it was always said in this proud and hopeful tone, like this is a good thing.

I don’t think it is.

Punching above your weight is a colloqialism that refers to boxing. Boxers are typically divided into classes by their weight, and a boxer who punches above their weight is one who is unexpectedly strong compared to others in their weight class. A very similar colloquialism might be “gets more bang for your buck.”

It’s worth noting, then, that Australian scientists tend to use the phrase that evokes the image of an overlooked underdog fighting for recognition, rather than the phrase associated with sleazy sales pitches. It also implies some sort of struggle or competition, as though our scientists are in a violent, high-stakes battle with scientists from other countries. That’s really the opposite of how global science is meant to work.

All it really means though is this: even though we don’t invest much public money in scientific research, we get an unexpectedly high return from it.

So isn’t this a good thing? Why shouldn’t we proudly proclaim this as we dance around the ring?

Sciency Goodness

To avoid digressing into debates about what it means for science to be good, or what the exact ratio of «whatever» to funding levels is, I’m going to invent a unit of sciency goodness called “sciency goodness.”

This could be “how much money we save on medical costs due to the science.” It could be “how much money companies make commercialising the science.” It could even be “how many people in the general population talk about the science.” Whatever the measure, we can agree that there’s an expected rate of return on investment, and “punching above your weight” means you’re above that expected rate.

So maybe, for example, 1 SG (ie. one unit of sciency goodness) means “we will save five billion dollars worth of medical costs over the next 40 years.” And then maybe, in order to actually get that five billion dollars of savings, most countries need to invest one billion dollars in the first place. In other words: $1 billion in, 1 SG out, or 1 SG per $1 billion.

So punching above our weight could mean a couple of things:

  • Australia invests $100 billion, but actually gets $600 billion of medical savings! That’s 120 SG for $100 billion, or 1.2SG per $billion! Bargain!
  • Australia invests $1 million, and gets $6 million of medical savings. Well, uh… that’s 0.0012 SG for $0.001 billion, which is still technically 1.2SG per $billion… yay?

Both scenarios could be called “punching above our weight.” One of them isn’t exactly great news though, is it?

Unpacking the Punching

Let’s break it down a little more though. What might be the reason we’re so darn scrappy?

Here’s one possibility: there is just… some quality… something unique… about Australia that makes our scientists the best scientists. Go us!

Now I seriously doubt that this is true, and I doubt that the scientists who say it really think this themselves. But the appeal to nationalism is very convenient. In the absence of a detailed explanation, we’re implying that Australians are just special. Our scientists are just better than other scientists.

Are there more realistic explanations? One possibility is that the graph up there shouldn’t actually go down to zero return for zero investment. Think about it: even if Australia spent zero public money on it, someone somewhere would still do some science just for fun. I mean, some people are already willing to buy their own equipment and work for free. They’d probably do it from their garages if the labs all closed down. So the graph really should look like more like this:

So here’s the problem: if our definition of “punching above our weight” really means “above the line of expected return on investment,” this is also satisfied by putting nothing in, but getting not-nothing out.

Here’s another possible interpretation: when we invest in science, the science minister (lol) doesn’t just go to the science shop and purchase 1 box of Sciencey Goodness for $1 billion. The money we invest in scientific research goes to a bunch of different projects, some of which pay off more than others. Over time you might expect the same investment to have the same average return, but in a normal research environment, you’d get a spread.

Let’s say you invest $1 billion like before, expecting to get 1 Sciencey Goodness back out of it:

But what happens when investment in science is really low? Well, the projects at the lower end of the spread don’t survive. The distribution gets cut off. Mathematically, this has the effect of pushing the average return up:

Isn’t this a good thing though? Poorly performing research projects are pruned off and the good ones survive!

Except, firstly, I’ve performed a bit of a trick. You see, that second graph should really look like this:

We don’t really think like this though, and we certainly don’t tell stories like this. We tally up the success stories and note how so many of them are unexpectedly good. But research ventures that get axed tend to be forgotten about.

The second issue is that it’s not just research projects that get pruned here. It’s people. Careers in Australian science can end — permanently — because of one failed grant proposal. And in hostile conditions like this, only the most privileged survive.

Finally, arbitrarily cutting off research in an attempt to optimise it is incredibly naïve. Not just because you lose researchers, but because you just never know which science today will be feeding into the science of tomorrow.

No-one should feel happy about cutting off lines of research that look like they aren’t paying off right now. It’s short term thinking that undermines our capacity for future research by removing both people and ideas from the ring.

What’s the Harm in Saying it?

Now I realise that these are massive simplifications I’m making. Return on investment in science is almost certainly not linear, and it definitely has complex state that can make relating input to output really difficult. But let’s be fair… if this is an oversimplification, then so is proudly proclaiming that “we punch above our weight” in the first place.

The real harm in saying this is the expectations we set for politicians and citizens. When we claim that Australian scientists punch above our weight, we imply that this is some intrinsic property of Australians, and that it will continue to be the case as funding is increased. But if politicians do eventually raise funds, they’ll probably see two things happen, in this order:

  • The total return from science funding will continue to stay roughly flat. This means that the rate of return will actually decrease!
  • The total return from science will eventually be in proportion to funding. The rate of return may or may not be steady, but it will no longer look like we’re punching above our weight.

Both of these things are risks for politicians, because they are outcomes that appear worse than expected. The risk is in part due to a dysfunctional political system, where things like this are routinely seized upon despite their validity.

But it is also due to the fact that this colloqialism isn’t really honest. There is enough about Australian science that can inspire citizens to support it more. Can we not just focus on that?

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