Right Thinking From The Left Coast
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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Dissecting the NSF

The Republicans, continuing their “balancing the budget by cutting $1 million items” policy, have stumbled upon this turd of an idea:

We are launching an experiment - the first YouCut Citizen Review of a government agency. Together, we will identify wasteful spending that should be cut and begin to hold agencies accountable for how they are spending your money.

That sounds good.  Surely, they’ll start out with something big that wastes tens of billions of dollars a year, like the Department of Defense or the Department of Education or the Department of Transportation, right?

First, we will take a look at the National Science Foundation (NSF) - Congress created the NSF in 1950 to promote the progress of science. For this purpose, NSF makes more than 10,000 new grant awards annually, many of these grants fund worthy research in the hard sciences. Recently, however NSF has funded some more questionable projects - $750,000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players and $1.2 million to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game industry. Help us identify grants that are wasteful or that you don’t think are a good use of taxpayer dollars.

The potential danger to science here is massive.  The danger comes not from the public, who have a perfect right to ask about where their money is being spent. The danger comes from Congress, which has recently made noises about micro-managing science.  From Bobby Jindal’s bizarre bashing of volcano research to Sarah Palin’s ignorant caterwauling about fruit fly research, our Congress—mostly Republicans, but some Democrats too—have demonstrating a spectacular lack of understanding about what science does and what programs are important.  They don’t bother to learn anything, of course.  They just identify programs that sound bad and attack them (Cantor’s page specifically asks the public to look for Religious Right dog whistles like “lawyers”, “culture” and “museum").

Politicians are simply not equipped to judge science and frequently don’t bother to try to educate themselves when they try to do so.  Back in the 90’s, one of the Republicans bashed research into ATMs, not bothering to even look up the research to discover that the ATMs in question were Asynchronous Transfer Modules.  I’ve heard others trash “cloning”, which most often refers to a technique of amplifying DNA for research into genetic markers of disease.  The public, actually, is probably better at reviewing science since members of the public are not generally so narcissistic as to assume they don’t need to learn anything before shooting their mouths off.

Of potentially greater concern is the wedge this could create to defund research that certain politicians don’t like, such as global warming research.  Defunding that may sound fine to the skeptics in the audience, but the same people don’t think we should be investigating anthropology, genetics or cosmology.  Or at least not aspects that contradict their ideas.

If we need to cut science funding to balance the budget—and I think it’s a bad place to start cutting—the way to do it simply to cut NSF’s budget and let NSF figure out what programs they can ditch.  Maybe we can shift some gross budget items.  But having 535 lawyers looking over scientists’ shoulders is bad medicine.

Just to be clear: I’m not opposed to accountability for publicly funded research. One of the reasons this program can happen is because all NSF-funded programs are required to make available a summary of research written for the general public that explains, in non-technical terms, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.  I strongly support this policy and I know few scientists who oppose it. Our funding does, after all, come from the public and they have a right to know what’s being done with it.

In fact, having the public go through NSF layman’s summaries might be a really great thing since they would learn that the title of research programs—or some lazy political shithead’s snide comments about it—do not explain what it actually does (see the fruit fly research referenced above).  The public learning about what scientists do is always a good thing.  The less we act some like mysterious brotherhood and the more we let the public see the sometimes confused, sometimes wrong-headed but eventually systematic way we do things, the better.

But keep the politicians out of it.  Especially from a party that has shown an alarming idiocy when it comes to science and an even worse laziness when it comes to learning about what they attack.

(Full disclosure: I have, in the past, been funded by NSF and applied, unsuccessfully, for support from them.)

Update: As a palate cleanser, here is latest awesomeness from the field of extrasolar planets.  We’ve found water vapor in a planet 42 light years away.

Posted by Hal_10000 on 12/01/10 at 07:48 PM in Science and Technology  • (0) TrackbacksPermalink
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