Controlling Science

In the past few weeks, there have been some rumblings about imposing new criteria on scientific research grants. In particular, attention has been brought to the National Science Foundation, where Lamar Smith, having identified a number of NSF programs that he considers to be frivolous, has proposed new criteria, including:

[that the research is] in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

You guys know I’m in astrophysics and you can imagine that I’m not too keen on this idea. I consider the NSF — indeed most of our scientific programs — to be a model of how other government agencies should be run. Here’s how a proposal works in NSF world:

1) The NSF puts out a call for proposals and scientists around the country submit them. The proposals are then evaluated by other scientists who grade them by scientific merit and feasibility. Attainable measurable goals are an important part of any proposal.

2) NSF goes down the list, funding things until they are out of money. Where they can trim budgets, they do. This year, because of the sequester, they only funded about the top 10% of proposals. Usually it’s a bit more than that, but always well shy of a majority. Every year, highly ranked proposals are unfunded simply because NSF stays within their budget.

3) Progress on any proposal is regularly monitored. In fact, not all of the money is released right away. Getting the full funding is dependent on making progress, meeting stated goals and publishing. If progress is not made, the program may be cancelled.

4) If you run over budget, that is usually tough shit (unless you are “too big to fail”).

5) At the end of the program, a final report is submitted. The success of future proposals will be heavily dependent on your performance. You don’t meet the goals, you won’t get funded.

You can contrast this to the usual subsidy programs our government runs where failure is seen as being the result of not having enough money. If NSF were run like the rest of our government, we’d still be funding research into the luminiferous aether.

That model may not be perfect but is massively preferable to having Congress look over the NSF’s shoulder. The problem here is illustrated in a post Ezra Klein did last week about the van Halen principle of politics: that ideas that sounds stupid and idiotic often aren’t once you get to know what they’re about.

When it comes to science, Congress is all about violating the van Halen principle, frequently criticizing research that sounds funny or stupid but is actually reasonable. My favorite example was in the 90’s when a Congressman criticized funding of ATM research without realizing that he was talking about Asynchronous Transfer Modules not Automated Teller Machines.

“But, Hal!” you say, “Surely we can agree that research into, say, duck genitalia is a waste?” Well, not really:

Male ducks force copulations on females, and males and females are engaged in a genital arms race with surprising consequences. Male ducks have elaborate corkscrew-shaped penises, the length of which correlates with the degree of forced copulation males impose on female ducks. Females are often unable to escape male coercion, but they have evolved vaginal morphology that makes it difficult for males to inseminate females close to the sites of fertilization and sperm storage. Males have counterclockwise spiraling penises, while females have clockwise spiraling vaginas and blind pockets that prevent full eversion of the male penis.

Our latest study examined how the presence of other males influences genital morphology. My colleagues and I found that it does so to an amazing degree, demonstrating that male competition is a driving force behind these male traits that can be harmful to females. The fact that this grant was funded, after the careful scrutiny of many scientists and NSF administrators, reflects the fact that this research is grounded in solid theory and that the project was viewed as having the potential to move science forward (and it has), as well as fascinate and engage the public. The research has been reported on positively by hundreds of news sites in recent years, even Fox news. Most of the grant money was spent on salaries, putting money back into the economy.

More important than the merits of any particular piece of research is the value of simply poking around and glimpsing the engines of the universe. You never know, a priori, what insights scientific research is going to produce. Here is a story from last year about how research into jellyfish produced a method for tracking HIV, cancer and other diseases. To quote me:

Sometimes just monkeying around with science produces unexpected insight. So research into jellyfish produces an AIDS treatment; screwing around with microwaves produces lasers and going to the moon produces remote sensors to monitor patients.

It’s a big universe out there and we’ve uncovered only a tiny fraction of its secrets. We should keep digging because we never know what’s going to turn up.

It would be nice if someone could just submit a grant to cure cancer or invent clean energy. But that’s not how science works. Science works by poking around and asking questions. Discoveries and breakthroughs — especially on complex issues like health and energy — are made through many discoveries and often sideways from seemingly unrelated disciplines. It’s fine to ask what the practical use of a piece of funded research is. But it’s dangerous to start insisting that everything be oriented toward a specific and narrow set of goals. You are closing off entire areas of research and discovery.

In Phil Plait’s post linked above, he cites Lysenkoism as an example of what happens when we politicize science in the name of advancing the national interest. I think it’s worth remembering what that was all about:

Lysenkoism or Lysenko-Michurinism was the centralized political control exercised over genetics and agriculture by Trofim Lysenko and his followers. Lysenko was the director of the Soviet Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Lysenkoism began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964.

Lysenkoism was built on theories of the heritability of acquired characteristics that Lysenko named “Michurinism”. These theories depart from accepted evolutionary theory and Mendelian inheritance.

Lysenkoism set back Soviet science by decades and directly contributed to the continual food shortages and starvation that killed millions. Its tendrils still extend to the modern Western world, where scientists want to pretend that genetics doesn’t matter. It’s descendent is the anti-GMO movement which has delayed the use of genetically-modified crops resulting in starvation and malnutrition in millions of people.

It would be silly to claim that banning research into duck genitalia is going to cause starvation (although equally silly to claim it will balance the budget). But it is the camel’s nose in the tent. And there are a lot of camels who want into the tent of controlling science. Climate research has been a favorite whipping boy for some Republicans. Bobby Jindal bizarrely criticized research into volcanos. Sarah Palin slammed fruit fly research — fruit fly research being the keystone to much of our understanding of genetics.

Nor is this confined to conservatives. Environmentalists are frequent critics of research into nuclear power and genetically modified crops (Greenpeace and other have stated many times that they want funding for ITER terminated). Just this week, an article showed that the majority of Americans perceive violence as rising even as it has fallen. Gun violence alone is down 69%. The response of the liberals blogs to this has been to either a) ignore it, b) harp on the fact that gun violence has declined slightly more slowly than other crime or c) claim the study is being misrepresented with specifying how.

In short, it’s not just duck dicks that are at risk. Once you open this door, any research that crosses someone as silly or politically incorrect is in jeopardy regardless of its actual merit.

If you want to cut spending on science — and I think it’s a stupid place to start — cut NSF’s overall budget. The last thing you want is a bunch of lawyers looking through NSF’s projects and booting studies that sound funny to them.

Science and scientists should be accountable to the public. As a scientist who has been funded by NSF grants and who has won NASA grants, I take my duties to report progress and engage in public outreach seriously as does almost everyone I’ve ever worked with. We publish papers, we submit reports, we give talks, we send out press releases and we do public events not just to stroke our own egos but to let the public know what their money is being used for. They have a right to know, no matter how small the funding may be. In fact, NSF proposals require a “lay summary” to be made available to the public.

But the proper place to hold scientists accountable for their work is the place that has worked pretty damned for over six decades: with the transparent peer review process that holds scientific programs to their promises and defunds scientist who aren’t doing what they promised. It may not be perfect; you can’t swing a dead cat in a science department without hitting someone who thinks his grant proposal was unfairly declined. But it’s better than having 535 know-it-all jackanapes looking over our shoulders.

Post Scriptum: In related news, the Republicans want to substantially narrow the Census Bureau’s function, including killing the American Community Survey. This has been a whipping boy for some conservative and libertarians who want the census bureau to just count heads and nothing else. I understand the inclination. But they don’t seem to realize that the bill, as written, would basically eliminate almost all economic information. Obama could literally claim an unemployment rate of whatever he wants.

And these guys want to make decisions about science funding?

Comments are closed.

  1. InsipiD

    Every year, highly ranked proposals are unfunded simply because NSF stays within their budget.

    It’s nice to hear about a government department with a strong grasp on the true meaning of NSF. That said, the less political involvement in choosing the winners here, the better. Long duck dongs and shrimp on treadmills are easy targets that are also sadly great examples of laymen not understanding science. Or pretending not to. The title of the NSF would suggest a certain autonomy about the way it operates, and I hope that isn’t an illusion, because neither party needs to have the power to shut down or push a specific agenda through research or lack thereof.

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  2. AlexInCT

    Obama could literally claim an unemployment rate of whatever he wants.

    Why would he need to, and what do you mean by “could claim”? They are already pretending we do not have a major employment problem in the US by not counting people that fell off the unemployment rolls and are no longer eligible or that work part time but would like to work full time.

    And I am all for defunding stupid studies, and believe me we pay for a ton of those regardless of what they lead you to believe, that are practically always political in nature and have very little to do with any real science. if you want to study the mating rituals of slugs or midgit lesbian albino donkeys, do it on your own fucking dime.

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  3. Dave D

    I was in graduate school during the barrage of Reagan cuts to science funding. I lived the experience of having my advisors funding dry up and having to TA for the university to earn my stipend. I actually preferred teaching becasue it got me out of the lab and got me a bit of autonomy when dealing with my advisor.

    In truth, my advisor was a lazy, pampered, Ivy League artifact of the days when NSF or NIH funding was easy to get and the good old boy network assured you of funding if you had connections in the peer-review process (just like publishing). He would submit his usual NIH/NSF proposals that had always been funded and scratch his head because the ususal old boys turned him down. He did NOT work hard enough, imo, and didn’t deserve better, and the dinosaur went exctinct. I was his last PhD student to finish (1990).

    In my opinion, the more of these dinosaurs that we eliminate, the better. I have to believe that decreased funding and increased peer oversight will only improve the quality of the research that actually gets funded. I took a career in industry 23 years ago and have to justify my existence every day. Academia should have to do the same. Duck dicks would surely not make the cut.

    I am for widely available (low) level of basic support for established research faculty that would fund part of their salary and maybe a portion of one or two graduate students. Anything else would have to be earned by current peer-review process, but it MUST remain scarce so as to increase competitiion and to encourage the dinosaurs to move on if they do not excel. This process should also be more available to young researchers to get them started, imo. The tenure system is a poison to this whole process, also, imo. “Publish or Perish” was the motto in my day and, assuming the peer-reviewed literature is still what I think it is, should still be the standard today.

    Also, your duck dick example wasn’t meant to support your thoughts, was it Hal?

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  4. Xetrov

    “But, Hal!” you say, “Surely we can agree that research into, say, duck genitalia is a waste?” Well, not really

    Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution clearly states “The Congress shall have the power to…make sure Ducks can fuck.”

    (In other words, what you quoted is a pretty clear outline of something I would consider a complete waste of tax payer money. Maybe you were being sarcastic and I missed it.)

    But I agree with your larger point. Congress should stay out of scientific oversight…a consequence of that should be no money from my tax dollars.

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  5. Ed Kline

    But, Hal!” you say, “Surely we can agree that research into, say, duck genitalia is a waste?”

    Well after reading those two fascinating paragraphs about duck penises, I say yes, yes we can agree that is a total waste of taxplayer money.

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  6. Argive

    The entire point of Hal’s post (and the accompanying article) is that we don’t really know where basic scientific research will take us. Many important scientific discoveries have been made more or less by accident, and as such basic research is an important investment to make even if the studies seem strange. Does studying gecko locomotion sound like a waste of money? Well, doing so led some scientists at UMass to produce something called Geckskin, an incredibly strong and awesome adhesive that can do stuff like hold 700 pounds on a smooth wall. Back in the 1960s, people like Walter Mondale called the Apollo program a waste of money. Why bother spending tens of billions of dollars on sending astronauts to the moon when there are so many problems here on Earth? But that program provided us with innumerable technological advances that no one saw coming. Basic scientific research is a public good.

    Also, who gets to decide what is and is not a waste of taxpayer money? Congress? Blog commenters? Not a great idea. That just allows more politics into the process. And considering that cutting the NSF would have basically the same impact on the deficit as cutting PBS, I don’t quite understand all the fuss. There are much bigger fish to fry.

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  7. Mook

    Also, who gets to decide what is and is not a waste of taxpayer money? Congress? Blog commenters?

    NSF bureaucrats and political appointees should decide on their own, silly. I wonder what is the ratio of wasted studies (obviously subjective) vs. something like the Geckskin discovery (which is still in development as far as I can tell)? Aren’t there foundations and private institutions that could/should fund much of this research? For example, it seems to me that pharmaceutical and biotech companies benefit from taxpayer-funded research. Why don’t they pay for their own basic research?

    By it’s nature, the decisions of politically funded organizations are vulnerable to political influence. NSF has special funding set aside for “minority” research projects. That tells me that there’s probably a lot of other pork and bad decisions involved with their funding process.

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  8. Hal_10000 *

    Ed, it’s not just duck studies. Another one that came under fire was one that got shrimp to run on treadmills. This sounded stupid … until you dug deeper and found out that this was a tiny part of a larger study of the health of shrimp populations in response to pollution. The treadmill was a quick way to asses their overall health.

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  9. Mississippi Yankee

    Hal, two things came to mind as I read your post (including the sarcastic ever-present jab at the republican party)

    1.) You’re terrified the your ox will be Gore’d (pun intended)

    2.) Private funding for almost all of these programs would put moah money in the pot, have less political influence and would pay a hell of a lot more salaries, thus stimulating the economy.

    As an example; since NASA’s decline/demise private enterprises have begun to pick up the ball in space exploration. Now instead of using my tax money these new investors are pumping up MY portfolio.

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  10. stogy

    Hal, where do you stand on paywalls for peer reviewed scientific journals? The UK recently passed a law making any research paid for by British taxpayers open access – do you think the US should go down the same road? (The problem of course being that paying up front for publication leads to a whole new set of problems)

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  11. Ed Kline

    Ed, it’s not just duck studies. Another one that came under fire was one that got shrimp to run on treadmills. This sounded stupid … until you dug deeper and found out that this was a tiny part of a larger study of the health of shrimp populations in response to pollution. The treadmill was a quick way to asses their overall health.

    Sorry Hal, but even after digging deeper that still sound stupid to me. Anyway, my libertarians leanings say government should not be funding any of this crap.I know we disagree on this, and I can live with that.

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  12. Hal_10000 *

    Hal, where do you stand on paywalls for peer reviewed scientific journals? The UK recently passed a law making any research paid for by British taxpayers open access – do you think the US should go down the same road?

    Yes. Most articles are available to the general public through different servers (x-archive in our case).

    And MY, my ox has already been gored many times. Private industry is picking up some of the slack on exploration but not on science.

    Anyway, my libertarians leanings say government should not be funding any of this crap.I know we disagree on this, and I can live with that.

    I understand that inclination but:

    A lot of basic scientific research is simply not going to be profitable. You have to get some funding to noodle around with science and make discoveries. A perfect example of this is is the pharmaceutical industry. Most breakthroughs are made in the academic setting where we can chase down a thousand unprofitable useless ideas to find the one good one; or make discoveries in the pursuit of other seemingly unrelated science. Those discoveries are then passed on to industry, which finds ways to refine, mass produce and market them. A lot of liberals like to pretend that private profits for big pharma aren’t necessary because most breakthroughs happens on NIH grants. This ignores the difficulty in turning a theoretical treatment into a usable mass-produced product. But, by the same token, industry tends to be narrowly focused on existing lines of research.

    The same thing with energy. Obama has gotten things backward with subsidizing private industry to use extant technology. The real breakthroughs will come on basic research. ITER, for example, is far too expensive for any private industry to invest in. But if a breakthrough is made, private industry will be all over it to make into a practical profitable tech.

    This isn’t radical modern thinking either. This is actually straight out of Adam Smith who said that, in addition to enforcing laws, government should support activities that benefit the public the public generally but are too narrow to benefit any interest specifically enough to create a profit incentive.

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  13. Argive

    Most breakthroughs are made in the academic setting where we can chase down a thousand unprofitable useless ideas to find the one good one; or make discoveries in the pursuit of other seemingly unrelated science.

    And even the “useless” ideas aren’t really useless. Studies that don’t wind up advancing scientific knowledge or lead to anything profitable show future researchers what not to do.

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  14. Hal_10000 *

    And even the “useless” ideas aren’t really useless. Studies that don’t wind up advancing scientific knowledge or lead to anything profitable show future researchers what not to do.

    Well said, Argive. It’s all one big connected universe.

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  15. Mook

    And even the “useless” ideas aren’t really useless

    By that standard, that are no standards. Every study, every research project would be “useful” to some extent and therefore not wasted time or resources. You can justify anything at any cost with that kind of mindset.

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  16. Mississippi Yankee

    The same thing with energy. Obama has gotten things backward with subsidizing private industry to use extant technology. The real breakthroughs will come on basic research.

    Hal it’s not referred to as “getting it backwards”. The correct term in everyone of these “subsidized” cases was pure political Crony Capitalism. But I’m pretty sure you knew that.

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  17. Hal_10000 *

    Every study, every research project would be “useful” to some extent and therefore not wasted time or resources. You can justify anything at any cost with that kind of mindset.

    Well, not really. There are studies and then there are studies This is why having NSF on a budget is a good thing. It forces them to prioritize the studies that are the most promising. The debate isn’t about whether NSF should prioritize some studies over others, but who should do the prioritizing.

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  18. Hal_10000 *

    This isn’t confined to us. The Canadian govt has a proposal to limit funding to projects that show commercial promise even though a) it’s difficult to tell a priori what studies will have commercial promise; b) studies that have clear commercial potential are generally not the ones that need public funding.

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