Scott Turner's opinions

Continuing the discussion from Discussion of Big Science Today, by an Important Member of the National Association of Scholars:

We got sidetracked before I could point out this interesting item from the extended Heritage Foundation report by Turner, in which he bemoans the insidious influence of Big Science.

From this:

" To illustrate, let me invite participation in a thought experiment. Make a list of three transformative scientific achievements of the Big Science era. Here is my list: (1) the physics of semiconductors leading to the invention of the transistor79; (2) the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which has led to efficient and rapid DNA sequencing80; and (3) Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR),81 which supports new gene-editing technology that presents great promise (and peril) for modifying genes in living organisms.82

Of my three examples, two (the invention of the transistor and the polymerase chain reaction) were products of private sector research (Bell Labs and Cetus Pharmaceuticals, respectively). Both innovations were driven by rebel scientists. William Shockley at Bell Labs, who was central to the invention of the transistor, was a brilliant, if unconventional physicist.83. Kary Mullis, who invented the polymerase chain reaction, was a biochemist who, prior to joining Cetus, had had a checkered career that involved, among other things, stints as a novelist, surf bum, and manager of a bakery. Both Shockley and Mullis drifted in and out of institutionalized science. Yet, both rank high among the greatest creative geniuses of the Big Science era. Both were Nobel Prize winners, and neither depended on the Big Science cartel for their discoveries and success.84 Neither would have found a congenial home in today’s universities.

My third example, CRISPR, has roots more firmly embedded in academic science. The two scientists who discovered CRISPR, Francisco Mojica, from Spain, and Yoshizima Ishino, from Japan, were not looking for a gene-editing method. They were trying to understand something entirely unrelated: bacterial immunity. The gene-editing method CRISPR would not have happened without Mojica’s and Ishino’s serendipitous discovery. Does the politicized American university have a place for serendipity? It is a good question, but one with no certain answer."

Comments anyone?


I am fascinated by the idea that “serendipity” is somehow precluded by scientific institutions in academia. Given that the opportunities for “serendipity” are impossible to define and delimit, how the hell is anybody supposed to reach that conclusion? Are we just so prejudiced against academic institutions that we figure that everyone in them is too lazy to note something important when it happens by accident?


Cherry-picking. There are plenty of other Nobels Turner could have picked that were funded by millions of NIH grant dollars.

My response:

The idea that these people invented their things without standing on decades of publicly funded research is laughable in the extreme. The development of any idea or invention has a long and complicated history, and the ways in which researchers and their results in their fields influence each other can’t just be ignored like this by looking only at where someone was employed or who funded them at the time when they invented or patented some thing. It’s ridiculous.


Ahh yes of course, and the researchers who work at private companies never read the literature or follow the research that comes out of universities. And they don’t have any friends or former colleagues or people they went to university with, and don’t meet at conferences and discuss matters or anything of the sort. Right?


Also, why is a transformative scientific achievement a list of commercialized products, rather than also include matters of great or intriguing insight even if that doesn’t lead directly to better toasters or comfier sneakers, or something else someone can patent and make money off?


Indeed. In terms of fundamental understanding, I might suggest (1) discovery of the Higgs, (2) discovery of gravitational waves, and (3) discovery of neutrino oscillation. There is no realistic chance that these advances could have happened from private funding.

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I’m also wondering how serendipity can be politicized. Chemical reactions are not particularly Liberal or Conservative.

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My understanding is that single-nucleotide polymorphisms tend to vote for the Scottish Nationalist Party. Also, my retirement fund is an Irish nationalist. So there are crossovers.


Another glaring thing about Turner’s dumpster fire is that science has mathematical tools for assessing correlations. Did he really not consider looking for correlations between grant budgets and Nobels?


I find Turner’s choices of “transformative scientific achievements” curious (well, two of them at least). Turner holds up PCR as an example of a success of “small science”, all while ignoring the fact that the foundations and reagents needed for Mullis were entirely provided by “Big Science”. Not only were key findings made possible by NSF funding, one (vital) citation in one of their earliest patents was to a study published by a group in the Soviet Union. In other words, not only was “Big Science” necessary, so too was Marxist science. Given Turner’s political leanings, this I find quite ironic. (Of course, Turner’s claim that the development of PCR did not depend “on the Big Science cartel for their discoveries and success” is just plain wrong.)

One might consider this to be an oversight, but Turner then cites important early discoveries for the development of CRISPR technology (and, for some reason, does not properly acknowledge Doudna and Charpentier). So he cannot be excused for ignoring analogous foundational research that enabled the development of PCR.

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And, according to some stories Mullis has told, LSD.

I noticed that too. And he didn’t present any argument for not acknowledging them, but then he can be very confident that his intended audience will never check (right, @Eddie?). It’s a ludicrous essay.

Are you aware that Eddie has endorsed Turner’s book on evolution here?

EN has picked up on Turner’s NR piece, so I thought I would add another tidbit to this thread. From Turner’s Heritage Foundation report (citations and their associated links have been removed):

"Climate change is many things, of course, but it is also a political agenda, ripe with opportunities for political power and career advancement. Historical spending by NSF on climate change reflects this. In 1989, for example, the NSF supported 19 research proposals on climate change, allocating a total of $6 million among them. By 2019, those numbers had grown to 547 research grants and a total of $812 million in expenditures. Since 1989, the NSF has allocated a total of more than $3 billion to more than 3,400 research grants on climate change. Assuming a 50 percent indirect cost rate, this represents a revenue stream of roughly $1 billion of indirect cost monies to colleges and universities. This figure is only for the NSF. If expenditures by other federal research agencies are included, as well as monies from various tax incentive programs for private foundations like the Sierra Club, total spending on climate change research reaches into the trillions of dollars, all of it potential sources for indirect cost assessments. For cash-strapped universities, tapping into this lush money stream is an irresistible temptation. To slake that thirst, academic scientists are pressured to direct their research toward studying climate change, whether they are inclined to or not.

By contrast, research into the world’s deadliest disease -malaria -has not enjoyed the exponential growth in funding that climate change research has. Since 1956, the NSF has spent $130 million on malaria research, allocated to a total of 274 research grants. Since a spike in funding around 1999 annual spending on malaria research has ticked along at a steady rate of about $6 million on average. (In the 2019 fiscal year, it was $4.5 million.) To be fair, the NSF is not on the front line of malaria research: the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the more logical funder. Even so, NIH funding for malaria research shows a similar pattern of steady—not exponentially rising—annual expenditures, averaging around $200 million per year.

What explains the difference? The answer is cynical, but unavoidable. Malaria research offers only modest indirect cost returns. Climate change offers a more lucrative stream, prompting a positive feedback loop. …"

I’m guessing that Turner wasn’t very careful or deliberate in assessing the awards NSF dedicates towards climate change. But even so, Turner’s denialism cannot change a brutal fact - the earth is hot and getting hotter, and we all know why. NSF better durned well be devoting huge resources to this problem, because if we don’t science our way out of it, we are all cooked. Of course, Turner imagines that the motivation isn’t the betterment of society, but carpeting an assistant vice-dean’s office (or, if one reads between the lines and takes into account other of Turner’s writings, funding a Women’s Studies teaching assistantship).

Regardless, Turner is too confused to be taken seriously (although that’s what the leading conservative think tank seems to be doing - woe is us :rage:). This is betrayed by his insinuation that NSF funding comes with more generous indirect cost returns than NIH funding. This is truly someone out of touch.


I haven’t checked myself, but I would be willing to bet that, in proportional terms, funding for COVID-19 research has outpaced that for cancer research in the past 2 years. Maybe Women’s Studies is to blame for that, too?

In any event, I would like to hear his argument for how this supposed problem would be addressed if research was primarily funded by huge corporations and why the potential for reaping windfall profits would have no effect then.


Given his love affair with privately funded research, we would have to ask why the pharma behemoths are not spending billions of dollars on malaria research. Could it be that they don’t see any profit in it since it is a “poor” country problem? Just maybe?

Sadly, this is the same type of attitude that shut down the construction of the Superconducting Super Collider here in the US. The US could have had the equivalent of the LHC, but conservatives got on their anti-science anti-spending hobby horses and had the project shut down, even after a lot of money and effort had already been used on the project. From what I remember, you can still find the empty tunnels in Texas somewhere.

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That’s a lot for NSF, given that when I talked to them about applications (they funded me from 1999-2002) they very emphatically told me that if I was going to convert an NIH proposal to send to them, it could not even mention any medical applications.

That would be hard to do for malaria!

How can any US scientist not know that indirect rates are (or at least were) the same for federal grants, and that NSF grants tend to be a lot smaller?

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