Tag: National Science Foundation

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?

Coburn on the Move

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.)