Tom Coburn is on the warpath against the NSF for supposed wasteful spending on scientific research, citing such wasteful programs as running shrimp on treadmills and having robots fold towels as examples of NSF waste.
I’ve blogged on this subject before. NSF does not dole out research grants on a whim. They are, in fact, a paradigm of how government agencies can work. They stick to a strict budget. The rank proposals by peer review and then only fund the programs they have the money for. Regular reports are required to release funding in subsequent years. And funding is contingent on past performance. If Coburn had dug a little deeper, he would have found that many of these so-called wasteful programs are useful. The shrimp treadmill program, for example, is about monitoring the health of shrimp — shrimping being a multi-billion dollar industry. The towel folding experiment, while sounding trivial, was a key breakthrough in robotics. Even though folding towels seems simple, it’s a very complex task. Getting robots to do it is a big step toward getting them to do other things (and providing insight into how humans do complex tasks so easily).
To be fair, however, you will almost certainly find any list of government research grants to have more than its share of clunkers. Indeed, that’s the reason we have government-funded science — to put money into projects that don’t have an obvious and immediate payoff but may have big benefits down the road: the sort of high-risk, high-reward projects that can sometimes bump science along. Most scientific experiments fail, most scientific theories prove wrong. Scientific investigation often sounds dumb because … well, it often turns out to be dumb. This is why scientists get so defensive about ideas like AGW and evolution: because it’s rare to find a theory so supported by the available evidence.
The best thing to do is let NSF continue to control its budget. Accountability is always good. Let’s make sure there are no conflicts of interest and that money isn’t being put into clearly failed projects. NSF’s policy of publishing layman’s summaries of all approved research should be continued and highlighted. But micromanaging it is a recipe for disaster. As I said in the above linked post:
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.
The worst thing about Coburn’s rant is that is has inflamed the usual suspects into claiming that the GOP hates science. In the middle of an otherwise good debunking of talking points, the above blogger says:
Republicans don’t like science and scientists because they are sources of data that are independent of GOP-approved propaganda mills like Fox News. Pesky scientists and academics are always popping up to dispute the Roger Ailes-approved buzz-quote of the day — on climate change, on health care, on the effects of poverty on the rapidly evaporating middle class, on the diversity of American families, and on the importance of funding basic research instead of commercially-driven ventures constrained by short-term considerations like ROI.
Today’s GOP has a visceral distrust of scientists for the same reason that it has a visceral distrust of the “lamestream media” (particularly deeply reported news organizations like The New York Times), teachers, organized labor, regulatory agencies, National Public Radio, and protest movements that are have not been astroturfed for Fox News’ cameras by Koch Industries: They’re not with the program, whatever this week’s program might be — more windfalls to Big Oil, justifying torture, or floating amendments to officially brand gay people as second-class citizens.
Science, you could say, has a built-in left-wing bias, because it does not appeal to simplistic notions of God, country, tribal supremacy, or any of the other lesser angels of our nature that the GOP finds handy for its get-out-the-angry-vote drives.
This is absurd. Ronald Reagan was a tremendous supporter of science as were both Bushes. Here, from the NSFs own website, is NSF’s historical funding, which has risen steadily, including when Bush and the Republicans controlled the government. There was a short (and ill-advised) spike in funding in 2008.
As for not being on the Fox News approved message: the only prominent politicians who are openly questioning the War on Drugs and the War on Terror — I mean, when there isn’t a partisan advantage to doing so — are Republicans like Rand Paul and Gary Johnson. Turn on Fox News and you’ll sometimes find someone like Andrew Napolitano vigorously disagreeing with the GOP on constitutional issues. John McCain and Jon Hunstman have both said they agree that climate change is occurring. McCain, you may remember, is such a marginal figure that he was the Republican President nominee in 2008.
Furthermore, the Left is more than happy to ignore science they don’t like. When The Bell Curve was published, the Left responded with anger, not debate. When Larry Summers, in the midst of discussing how to get more women into science, had the temerity to suggest that sexism was not the root cause of the gender disparity, the Left didn’t just dispute him; they hounded him out of office for blasphemy.
The Left continues to support climate-change related pseudo-science like food miles, locavorism, electric cars and corn ethanol. They continue to treat scientific ignoramus Algore as some kind of prophet. The Democrats have specifically buried reports they don’t like, such as those showing Head Start to be a failure and Obamacare-style reforms to drive up healthcare costs. They continue to flog welfare spending, “fair” trade and raising the minimum wage despite decades of research showing the disastrous effects of such policies. They ignored the parts of Climategate in which scientists tried to silence climate dissenters and have said nothing about unfair and brutal attacks on climate realists like Bjorn Lomborg.
Hell, right fucking now, they are running around claiming the spate of tornados is a result of global warming despite the dearth of any evidence supporting this position. They’ve even said that the null hypothesis should be that any weird weather is a result of global warming. They’re calling for states to make long-term plans to deal with AGW even though no one really knows what those long-term effects will be beyond unscientific “narratives” conjured up out of the imagination.
And frankly, the profligate spending of both parties is the biggest menace threatening science today. Just the interest on the stimulus would be enough to fund a complete second NSF.
But … the Republicans are determined to make it easy to fling these charges at them. Their positions on AGW and evolution open the door wide. They recently cut funds to overhaul our weather satellite system — a crucial part of hurricane prediction. Eric Cantor put numerous small scientific programs on the ridiculous You Cut website.
As long as the GOP continues to act as if science is the enemy, they will be accused of … seeing science as the enemy. As long as they continue to tolerate ignorant anti-science screeds from politicians who can’t be bothered to read the publicly available layman’s summaries of funded research that explain what the research is and why it’s being done, they will be branded this way.
And that’s a pity. Because science won’t survive in the hands of the Democrats either. Science is many things; but it’s never politically correct.
(As always, disclosure: I’ve been funded by NSF programs at various points in my career.)