Some thoughts on Robert Downey, Jr.’s science funding idea

A screenshot of Iron Man in action in 'Avengers: Infinity War'.
A screenshot of Iron Man in action in 'Avengers: Infinity War' (2018). Source: Hotstar

On December 12, Iron Man, a.k.a. Robert Downey, Jr., and David Lang coauthored an op-ed in Fast Company that announced a grant-giving initiative of theirs designed to help fund scientists doing work too important to wait for the bureaucracy to catch up. Their article opened with a paragraph that, to my eye, seemed to have many flaws in reasoning, or at least overlooked them, perhaps in favour of getting to their limited point.

If there were a Nobel Prize for Overcoming Bureaucratic Adversity, do you know who would win it? Katalin Karikó. Her story of enduring decades of little to no support for her research into the properties of mRNA, which led to the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, has transcended science. It exposes a blind spot of our current scientific institutions to find and nurture every passionate scientist and line of inquiry.

Except it isn’t a blind spot.

I think it’s a romantic ideal that dreams of funding every idea scientists have. You can, there’s nothing wrong with it, except you’d need lots of money. The current system is designed – even if it hasn’t been implemented – to ensure at least a certain percentage of good ideas are identified and funded at the right time and in parallel to maximise that percentage. What Iron Man and Lang imagine in their article is a system that will fund all good ideas, including those that The System has let slip. It’s a welcome move, perhaps, but it isn’t more virtuous, even when it rewards adversity that, again, The System has let slip, simply because The System’s way – which is effectively the tax-funded government’s way in most parts of the world – is the most efficient for its limited corpus of funds and its responsibility to organise research output to maximise societal good, directly or indirectly, instead of letting it all be open-ended.

Granted, in times of great adversity, it might be foolish to wait for evidence before waiting to act, and a ‘wartime’ funding paradigm during a pandemic makes some sense, even if it’s a solution designed for wartime alone. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic – and the ‘fast grants’ for pandemic research that seem to have inspired Downey, Jr. and Lang – is a different kind of adversity than climate change. The latter is longer-lasting and more persistent, is a wicked problem (i.e. has multiple interrelated and/or emergent causes), has significant social implications that complicate the relationships between causes and effects, and is decidedly inter- and multi-generational. These differences could in turn render unbridled rapidity counterproductive.

A part of the reason for the authors’ outlook, concerned with ‘catching’ good ideas before it’s too late, sticks out in the first sentence, in which Iron Man and Lang single out Katalin Karikó for praise for her work on mRNA vaccines as well as signal that they consider the Nobel Prizes to be the ultimate reward. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know where I stand on these prizes. But more importantly in the current context, the use of these prizes in particular and the choice of Katalin Karikó as an example of the sort of scientist they’d like to fund is… jarring.

Iron Man and Lang seem to believe, as they write, that it’s important to catch brilliant ideas quickly (and that “the major impediments” to funding scientific work “are the obvious limitations of decision-making by committee”). First, one cause, among many, of the bureaucracy’s slowness is the bureaucracy’s need to be accountable to the polity about how it spends the polity’s money. And I don’t know if Iron Man and Lang are making room for any kind of slowness, and the corresponding paperwork, in their grant-funding programme. ‘Risk-seeking’ shouldn’t become an excuse for ‘accountability-avoiding’. On a related note, to zero in on ‘speed of funding’ as the principal problem with not funding the “right” kind of environmental research is also to ignore other, potentially more fundamental problems hiding behind the slowness – like “the party currently in power is not interested”.

Second, many of us have lambasted others for singling out individuals – typically white men – as the sole originators of great discoveries. However, many people have identified Karikó more than anyone else with creating the idea of mRNA vaccines, aided by long profiles published by major newspapers about her work and her role in BioNTech, yet haven’t elicited the same or even similar reactions. If adversity is our measure, i.e. “we’re going to associate the person who struggled the most to make a meaningful contribution to an important idea”, then Karikó is by no means alone – nor is she likely to be, as just the post-war history of science has taught us, if we’re focusing on women. She couldn’t have worked alone, and even if the people we’re ignoring as a result are white old men, it’s still problematic to say Katalin Karikó is deserving of a Nobel Prize – at least not without, at the same time, admitting that it would be legitimate for the Nobel Prizes to award two or three people for the invention of mRNA vaccines.

(I discovered that Nature News published a deep-dive in October on the “tangled history of mRNA vaccines” after I started writing this post, discussing the work of a long line of people, including Karikó, who contributed to this enterprise. So on a related note, if Karikó’s story is being used to illustrate new science-funding ideas, what might the professional experiences of all those other people say about how science is funded – as well as about how we apportion credit?)

Third, it’s kind of a bummer that, heartening though it is for major Hollywood actors to get interested in the relatively more obscure problems of science administration and funding, and in turn to become part of a concrete solution instead of running their mouths on Twitter, this new initiative refuses to break from the tradition of devising new solutions to old problems instead of fixing existing solutions – an admittedly much less glamorous enterprise. The only other person who’s compared to Iron Man as frequently as Robert Downey, Jr., one Elon Musk, is infamous for this kind of thinking vis-à-vis ‘revolutionising’ personal transport. Musk wants more people to own cars – especially the ones his company makes – but will go so far as to dream up Hyperloop and The Boring Company to avoid considering fixing existing public transportation options.

Similarly, Downey, Jr. and Lang, and their supporters, will go to the extent of setting up a whole new platform, or getting on a relatively new platform (same difference), instead of building on the things The System is already getting right. And this is a problem for at least three reasons. First, the new system will set up its own forms of discrimination and in-ness. For example, Downey, Jr.’s and Lang’s idea goes like this:

FootPrint Coalition is funding early research in brand new environmental fields, and doing it under the direction of esteemed Science Leads who can move quickly and fund at their discretion. The FootPrint Coalition Science Engine builds off suggestions made in the Funding Risky Research paper. It operationalizes the “loose-play funding for early-stage risky explorations” but doesn’t bind it to universities.

We’re doing it “in public” on the Experiment funding platform, a website for crowdfunding science research projects, so anyone can participate as a cofunder.

As a platform that you get on, describe your idea and convince potential funders that your work is worth funding, ‘Experiment’ fundamentally requires you to be able to communicate clearly and with the same sensibilities as your future funders, most of whom are likely to be English-speakers of the US or Europe, if you expect to be successful. This in turn quickly eliminates a panoply of scientists who aren’t great communicators or aren’t even fluent in English. And in the specific case of the ‘Science Engine’, your work needs to appeal to the ‘Science Lead’ and fit into their sense of what’s important and what isn’t. A version of this problem already exists with scientific journals – where major journals’ editorial boards are often filled with editors who turn down papers because they’re not as enthusiastic as the authors might be about, say, the nutritional properties of an ant species endemic to Odisha.

In addition, not all ideas to save the environment are great ideas. For example, climate geoengineering is popular with the US government because it needs to make up for historical emissions without compromising on current economic growth, it needs to placate the local, powerful energy industry and it wields the clout to disregard how much geoengineering solutions could screw up the weather in other parts of the world.

Second, as a system designed to patch “leaks” in the “scientific talent funnel”, it still presumes the existence of a funnel for its own success even as it does nothing to fix the funnel itself. This is self-serving. And third, allowing scientific work to achieve success based solely on what gets funded quickly – that too based on descriptions on platforms on the internet, unmoderated by the criticism of other scientists (have you visited PubPeer?) or even by the critical attention of competent science journalists, and based on what people who are already rich think is “cool” – can be a short path for things the world could really do without to get funded.

So, do I think Iron Man’s and Lang’s pitch is a good idea? I still don’t know.

Featured image: A screenshot of Iron Man in action in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Source: Hotstar.