Sunday, July 10, 2011

But We Should Be Glad We Have It At All

Yesterday I was driving into Niantic, CT, behind a large black SUV. It's always interesting when someone's vehicle provides a comprehensive summary of their socio-political beliefs. In this case, we had military (Maine veteran's plates, USMC sticker, "support our troops" sticker, Vietnam Vet sticker), religion ("Keep Christ in Christmas," "Abortion Stills a Beating Heart," "106.7 The Promise FM," "Knights of Columbus"), 2nd Amendment (NRA sticker, "Just Try and Take It" superimposed over the silhouette of an M-16), and the catch all "I Love The USA!" No Discovery Institute sticker, so I guess there's the faint hope that they're opponents of equal time for ID, but I wouldn't put money on it.

People like this tend be big fans of the sort of "exposé" recently published by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). The Coburn Report pupports to demonstrate how NSF is wasting taxpayer funds on worthless research. Now don't get him wrong. Sen. Coburn is not anti-science; he just wants NSF to fund useful science (my guess is that this encompasses bigger bombs and cures for the various afflications that affect his aging constituency of angry white male voters; lumbago, prostate cancer, and erectile disfunction are biggies, I suspect). NSF does do this, the report grudgingly acknowledges, but it also spends too much money on "indulging the curiosity of scientists."

Setting aside the fact that "the curiosity of scientists" is what has generated all of the useful science that Sen. Coburn claims to be a fan of, the report is an object lesson of some of the challenges faced by agencies like NSF. It is a masterpiece of dissembling. Even assuming that the examples of research cited by the report are "wasteful," they amount to a tiny fraction (<0.01%) of NSF's annual budget. Is everything else "wasteful?" Well, we don't know. What we *do* know is that everything that was funded went through peer review, which is a far more vigorous process of assessment than the review carried out by the wonks in Coburn's office.

That is not to disparage Coburn's staffers because they clearly have considerable talents in the black arts of politics. Note how the report takes NSF's principal strength - the claim that it funds "transformative research" - and turns it into a weapon. OK, the report asks - how much of the research  funded by NSF is genuinely "transformative?" The answer, of course, is not much. By its very nature, transformative research tends to be both rare and difficult to identify in advance. For a funding agency to claim that this is its primary objective is both an ambitious goal and a hostage to fortune, something that Coburn and his staff quickly recognized.

One way to counter arguments like this is to find new ways to talk to the taxpaying public through education and outreach. The risk, of course, in developing rap videos for kids that explain scientific concepts (See Money 4 Drugz) is that it's terriby easy to point to this as a misuse of taxpayer funds for an apparently trivial activity. The fact that the $50,000 quoted by the report didn't actually pay for this video or any others (it was a networking grant looking at novel outreach methods) is by-the-by. It's possible to shoot down pretty much every claim made in the report - see here for a point-by-point rebuttal by one of the researchers cited by Coburn - but it takes time and it's unlikely to be read by the man in the black SUV.

Does this matter? Absolutely. It's likely that in the near future the US House of Representatives will be looking at the fiscal year (FY) 2012 appropriations bill that will fund NSF. Less money for NSF means less money for ADBC, CSBR, and all the other programs that we care about. So if you are a U.S. Citizen (be you Republican, Democrat, or Independent) reading this and you care about any of the things that I've been described in this blog over the past couple of years, follow this link and do something about it.

[OK, that's it with the US-centric stuff. Normal service will be resumed shortly]

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