• Passing the hat for gun research

    Earlier this month Mike Oliver reported on a study on the relationship between gun background checks and firearm deaths.

    The researchers found that states with specific checks for restraining orders, mental illness, fugitive status and misdemeanors – items which would be considered in a higher level of background checking – are associated with a 7 percent reduction in homicides and a 2 percent reduction in suicides. [...]

    [T]hey found that the more comprehensive the background check was and the longer the states had been doing those comprehensive checks, the fewer homicides and suicides. [The] researchers check[ed] to see if there might be an upward tick in other type of homicides, such as people killed with knives, but that was not the case. [...]

    Homicides are 13 percent lower in states that have checks for restraining orders and 21 percent lower when fugitive status is checked.

    The study is by Sen and Panjamapirom and is ungated. It includes an appropriate caution.

    The findings of this study tentatively suggest that, by and large, more comprehensive background checks at the state level prior to firearm purchases may reduce firearm deaths. However, we strongly emphasize that these results are preliminary, and that more research is needed to establish whether these results are causal.

    Where will the funding for that additional research come from? Federal funding for gun-related research has been frozen for years. So, Sen is trying something innovative. She’s “crowdfunding” it on microryza.com. It’s like Kickstarter, but for research. Until the law changes, this may be the only way to fund academic gun research. If the law changes another way, this may be how a lot more researchers attempt to fund their work. Of course, that all but guarantees a lot fewer researchers. So, I find Sen’s approach simultaneously an interesting response to the current dearth of funding for gun research and a frightening glimpse of a potential, bleak future.


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    • Why frightening and/or bleak? A community that tolerates being taxed $X in order to have the government buy research, seems almost certain, if relieved of tax $X, to voluntarily contribute a multiple of $X to research that they themselves get to select and endorse.

      Is the notion that one’s scope of work will be constrained by the patronage preferences of the entire community, rather than the patronage preferences of a state legislature or a few key Congresspeople, that negative a prospect?

      • Research is a public good. See: collective action problem.

        But, let’s be clear, I make a living from research funding. Removing public support for it would be frightening to me.

    • Collective action problems can be solved by any group of actors; it doesn’t have to be government although certainly it can be. Indeed, Kickstarter is basically a collective-action-problem solution modality, that happens to be tuned to one particular type,

      Research in fact seems an absolutely perfect match for a Coasian solution, particularly given the size and heterogeneity of the American political organization. We can get far more public good production out of the summed parochial interest groups, than we can from a consensus among all groups as to what should be researched.

    • Sorry, I didn’t see the second half of your statement.

      I’m torn between the urge to pat you on the shoulder reassuringly (“there, there”) and smack you upside the head. I shall attempt to square the circle and say “cowboy up, researcher – if you can convince a government bureaucracy that your work has value, you can do the same thing for a corporate board or a citizen’s committee or a bunch of fellow travelers”.

      There’s nothing at all wrong with being used to and comfortable with one set of funding mechanisms and just hating change (“Change bad.” – Frankenstein’s Monster) But if you really think that the only entity that would ever fund your work is government, that is like saying your work is of so little value that nobody would ever voluntarily support it. That strikes me as unlikely.

      • ARGH! Do you know who I have to convince to get funded? Not bureaucrats. That’s not how it works. And no, it’s not all government funding.

        Now, we have a natural experiment don’t we? Government pulled out of gun research. Has there been enough?

        • No, I don’t know the specifics of how you get funded. My uncle was an entomologist; he talked a lot about persuading bureaucrats that his field of study (mosquitos) needed more $. My apologies if my assumption was off-base or off-putting.

          I think gun research is a fair natural experiment, although the new social media technologies were nascent when that funding ban went through, so we might expect a slower ramp-up.

          How much gun research do/did we need?

          • I would say that we need at least enough research to determine if the public policies that we implement work. To imply that the government should do one but not the other doesn’t really make sense to me. Likewise, you can’t say that we don’t have evidence that the policy doesn’t work if you aren’t willing to fund the research. It’s a public health problem, therefore it should get public funding.

            Crowdsourcing is not a useful way to run basic research.

          • Enough to know if it is possible to decrease gun deaths and injuries. If so, enough to understand what we can do to decrease gun deaths and injuries.


    • Don’t quote me on this, but I believe real expenditures for non defense research have increased on an annual basis. Space research which was a major expenditure decreased radically some decades back and other research expenditures remained relatively flat though in general they rose slightly. Where did all this extra money go? Healthcare research. Tons of money have suddenly been spent in that research sector even though the private sector spends tons of money on healthcare research as well.

      I wonder if that sector is able to usably spend that amount of money in a wise fashion. A lot of the stuff being published in healthcare doesn’t seem to be well focused or scientifically meritorious. Does publish or perish factor in here? Maybe too much money in research reduces its quality. Maybe research is influenced too much by politics. Maybe if we had less research dollars we would have more bang for the buck and the dollars might be redistributed in a better fashion. In the end all these expenditures represent trade offs.

    • As the researcher who is PI of project Austin described, the challenge of crowdfunding is that the paradigms are different from conventional research funding. When we write a proposal, it has to grab interest, but ultimately it will be reviewed by scientists. One worries about reviewer opinion, but one does not worry about whether the project *will* get any reviewers. In crowdfunding, the primary challenge simply is whether there *will be* enough readers. Getting enough traffic to the website is the first, second and third most important condition for success! And that is a challenge for most scientists, especially us of the older generation who are not experts in multiple forms of social media, and who tend not to be good at ‘hustling’!

      • I cannot tell from your paper the source of your funding. I think this was an excellent start towards what should be an acceptable, unless they move the goalposts, remedy by people of many political persuasions. I can guarantee that they will question your funding source.


        • “I cannot tell from your paper the source of your funding.”

          Hi Steve
          This was ‘unfunded time’, my university allows about 20 percent or so time for faculty to ‘play around’ on topics they are interested in. They just aren’t happy if faculty do project after project after project on the same topic with no attempts at finding external funding. So I can do maybe one more paper on gun policy with unfunded time, after that I’ll get smacked on knuckles in an annual review! BTW, an NRA affiliated lawyer emailed me literally minutes after that paper was out, and the one thing, the ONLY thing he wanted to know was who funded my study!

    • The key term no one is using here is “peer review”. Sure, you have to persuade the bureaucrats that your _field_ is useful, but individual research projects get reviewed for merit by people who actually have the ability to do that review.

      In crowdfunding, that’s all thrown out with the baby. Thus choosing projects is even more political than pork barreling.

      (Actually, I think that alternative forms of funding are a good (or at least interesting) things as long as mainstream, peer-reviewed science is firmly in place, but that’s a different argument. Pork barrel and/or crowdfunding as the only sources would be a disaster.)