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?