March 5, 2015
Dear Representatives, Senators, and Citizens of Wisconsin:
I’ve been a publishing research physicist for twenty years, and there is an aspect of science that I am very proud of that I would like to share with you now. For over a century, science has realized that each of us has an incredible capacity to fall in love with our own theories, even in the face of evidence that they are simply wrong. So, science has an extensive and self-critical peer review system. We constantly review each other’s work to make sure what gets published and funded is based on evidence and not theories that we cannot let go of. I suggest here today that we could include something of this method into large financial decisions arising out of politics, such as the UW-System budget changes currently being debated.
In every grant application I write or review, public or private, there needs to be an agreed upon metric: some measure of how well the research is going, or how well the experiments are either validating our theories or not. An example is the p-value in a statistical test. The metric and the test need to be decided a priori. We now argue about what statistics to throw out there to prove our point about the condition of the Wisconsin economy, but had we at first decided upon how we would judge the previous budgets, then we could easily evaluate them now and make the needed changes.
In the UW-System case, we know that for the 1.2 billion dollars invested from the state, the state gets 15+ billion dollars of economic activity in return (https://www.wisconsin.edu/about-the-uw-system/). The current budget is based on, basically, theories, and the results could go either direction if we are open minded. It is hypothesized that the cuts we talk about now will lead to growth in private investment and the return on every one dollar in investment will grow the rate of return on the UW System investment. It is also possible that these cuts will result in a weakening of the rate of return if these theories are not true.
The way a scientist would approach this problem is to decide now that we will use a metric to evaluate the success or not of the state’s divestment in the UW System: it could be for example this economic rate of return, or it could be say the gross amount of the returns themselves, or perhaps the incremental change in tax revenue that results from this change in returns. Maybe it should be the average h-index for publications. In any case, as someone who has made a living in quantitative analysis, and comparisons to theories, I urge you to consider this approach. If the metric goes in the wrong direction after the cuts, and if we can then reverse the cuts, and the metric turns around, any reasonable person would have to admit that the theory needs to be re-evaluated. That is what a good scientist would do here, and it is what I strongly recommend.
This has nothing to do with ideology or spin. This is simply a way to see if what we do is benefitting us or not. After the fact, there would be no hours of circular debate with everyone throwing out their favorite numbers – we would simply analyze the results. In science, if an involved party refuses to test a theory in this objective way, then the assumption is that there is something wrong that is being hidden, and such a paper or grant proposal would be immediately rejected. We have to be very careful not to assume that because we love a theory so much, it must be true: T.H. Huxley warned about the “slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” The ugly fact is perhaps the fact that the previous budget was supposed to have “repaired” things based on the same theories. It is reasonable to now suggest a measurement and corrective strategy.
I therefore make a call to this government, my government, to insert into this bill some measure, or metric, by which we could tell if it has improved either the UW System or the state or both. Everyone, both sides, must be involved for it to be an objective measure. Then, we need some language that the cuts will be modified if the metric shows an unfavorable response to the changes imposed by the law. This is neither a left or right political position. It is just good decision making. I will be working with my representatives to push for this change.
The UW is world class. Certainly politics and ideology should be secondary to the health of one of Wisconsin’s treasures. Let’s commit to evaluation and correction of this change in funding within the bill itself. It seems perfectly reasonable to request this, regardless of which party has the majority.
Thank You for your consideration of this recommendation,
Michael Kissick, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Medical Physics, with appointments in
Human Oncology, Biomedical Engineering, at the
University of Wisconsin – Madison, and an Affiliate in
The Morgridge Institute for Research