Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Science Versus Sensationalism, Part Two of Four: Professional Funding Protocol

My latest post at Examiner.com and in the 'science versus sensationalism' series explores funding procedures used within the professional research community. How does the UFO community stack up? You decide...


  1. In most ways, it's the best process we have to tease out the scientific sense from what passes for scientific sense. A series of checks and balances designed to ensure that the best research has access to funding and the resultant papers submit to the peer review system.

    As an ideal it's up there with the concept of democracy. Perhaps it's even better than democracy as it involves a distinctly educated cohort of 'voters.'

    Unfortunately, the need for funding and peer approval invites all the problems that feature in democracy. Rather than lobbyists, there's the influence of vested interests. Funding isn't flowing to controversial subjects or those that raise conflicts with the potential benefactors.

    As such, ostensibly neutral science is mediated at the nexus of funding applications and socio-economic interests. Bluntly, gaining access to funding, credible scientists and acceptance to the peer-review system isn't a level playing field.

    These observations aren't drawn from people in the UFO field and certainly don't regard them as a conspiracy. Rather, it's because of an interest in archaeology and the difficulties some conservative archos/anthros have described.

    For the sake of argument, let's say someone with some credibility claimed to have an interaction and evidence of something exotic? Would anyone take money from one project to finance research in this one?

    1. Hey, K, I hope you are doing well. Your point is well taken that the professional research community experiences some of the same challenges as other industries. Networking and competently navigating such industries will always be relevant factors - as in ufology. We indeed have some 'elephants' that are difficult to get moving and, once put in motion, can be even more difficult to stop or even change direction.

      That stated, I think the primary reason the leaders of groups such as CSETI and MUFON do not make more concerted efforts to submit intelligently composed grant applications to appropriate calls for proposals is lack of credible data. Past scientific research efforts such as the Ambient Monitoring Project (AMP) were poorly managed, including claims of running out of funds, numerous contradicting public statements and failing to disclose personnel. What's more, the project never so much as released outcomes or published a final report. The AMP is just one example of many in which MUFON not only failed to demonstrate how it could benefit potential funding agencies, but appeared a more likely liability.

      Similarly, CSETI appears considerably more likely to damage the reputation and credibility of potential funding agencies than to contribute to such organizations in positive and constructive manners. Citizens are of course always free to contribute their money to anything they choose, and if they have no concerns about being unable to verify or even so much as obtain reasonable reports about what investigators are doing, so be it. However, professional funding organizations, such as foundations, state agencies and federal entities will simply not contribute substantial funds to corporations that operate in such manners.

      In my opinion, the ways such orgs operate are much more to blame for why they do not seek and receive significant grant dollars than the UFO subject matter is to blame. I think the largest obstacles include grandstanding and empty absurd claims, and that those obstacles are greater blocks to funding than any other reasons that typically receive blame.

    2. Hiya Jack. I take your points about a lack of decisive research being at the whim of the amount or quality of the evidence. I was focusing on the process of research rather than the entities of MUFON and CSETI and missed your main contention.

      I regard CSETI as largely a funding project for Greer’s lifestyle and sense of importance. If so, the news releases and extraordinary claims represent bait and lures to attract donations and have no impetus in the direction of scientific research.

      Let’s imagine CSETI never existed? Apart from some folk being slightly better off in the pocket, what would we miss? Not one thing has added to the value of UFO research beyond highlighting the need to be cautious of scam-artists. Even then, we’ve had precedents like Otis T. Carr.

      On the other hand, MUFON has aided UFO research by providing platforms for some of the good researchers over the years. That doesn’t mean everything has been meaningful, but it shows a chasm between the CSETI ethos and MUFON.

      With the recent house-clean at MUFON, they’re planning to create (or have already) a science panel and I guess we’ll wait and see how that pans out. Hopefully, they’ll try and emulate some of FUFOR’s procedures and include scientists who are active academics in fields unrelated to UFOs.

      Beyond the merits of one group or organisation is the apparent dearth in quality reports. As you know, recent years have been lacking in substantial cases and it’s hard to imagine how what has been reported could succumb to the attention of neutral science. This alone could be discouraging to researchers and scientists when there is little, in recent history, remarkable enough to justify a grant proposal.

    3. Thanks for your comments and interest, Kandinsky. I appreciate them.

      The recent sensational claims (from those claiming to conduct scientific research) that lack justification are of course relevant issues. One of the things I find somewhat interestingly concerning is that it would seem the witnesses – literally the self-described abductees, those who report dramatic UFO sightings and so on – would be among the most outraged, or at least that SHOULD be the case. For what are no doubt a number of reasons, this is simply not happening on much of a scale.

      About a lack of cases that would justify seeking grant dollars to support professional and scientific investigation... At least one of the problems I identify, particularly in the circumstance of MUFON, is that they are working backwards, so to speak. As long as an alien presence is assumed and the investigation proceeds under such an assumption and as an effort to substantiate it, the process is, by definition, not scientific.

      For instance, a grant proposal consists of citing data to justify funding. If the MUFON stance consists, either directly or indirectly, of searching for ET life, then the idea of citing tens of thousands of reports – none of which have conclusively demonstrated an alien presence – as justification for funding, then the strategy is not logical from its outset. They simply have no data to cite that justifies their continuing and stubborn conclusion. If they would cease working backwards from a preexisting conclusion, however, and take a more neutral stance while citing phenomena supported by reasonable data, grant dollars would be much more obtainable.

      Also, a professional grant proposal should consist of an explanation of how the research will significantly contribute to the mutual goals of the organizations involved. Competently including such information would be possible and extremely helpful if done from a more practical perspective than has yet been the case.

      But let's cut to the chase here, K. As for me, I strongly suspect the primary reason such organizations claiming to conduct scientific investigation do not conform with established protocol is because their investigations would result in establishing an extremely high percentage of prevailing current assumptions are incorrect. Such a situation would have potentially drastic consequences, or, at the least, consequences the leaders are not willing to experience.

      How about you? What do you think are the primary reasons MUFON and CSETI leaders and key personnel often remain so opposed to conforming to scientific principles and protocol?

      I do not have a problem with woo perspectives – under most circumstances. The paranormal is quite interesting. People are entitled to conduct any activities they choose, as well as put it in the context of anything they want. They are not, however, entitled to go unchallenged while calling such activities scientific.

      If they want to conduct events where discussion of aliens is shared among like-minded people, fine. But I think it should be called that, not science.