How some politicians stumble on science
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
“All Congresses and Parliaments have a kindly feeling for idiots,” Mark Twain wrote in his once-again hot-selling autobiography, “… on account of personal experience and heredity.” Twain didn’t much care for politicians. Scientists might soon be feeling the same way, if they didn’t already, spurred by recent signs of budget-cutting headed straight at them.
Last month, National Institutes of Health chief Francis Collins warned genetic researchers, for example, that promised budget cuts would likely drop their chances from a historically low 1-in-5 chance of winning federal grant money in half, to 1-in-10. Science magazine’s executive publisher, Alan Leshner, last week urged researchers to educate their congressmen on the benefits of their research.
Whom to start with? Well, perhaps Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., who last month joined a hoary political fraternity of elected officials unhappy with National Science Foundation grants. “Many of these grants fund worthy research in the hard sciences,” Smith said in a recent budget-cutting video, noting NSF’s roster of Nobel winners. “But recently NSF has funded some projects I want to know your thoughts on,” he added, citing two grants:
•”University academics,” he said, had been awarded a $750,000 grant “to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players.”
• Another $1.2 million grant went “to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game and movie industries.”
Suggesting the average family pays $10,000 in taxes, Smith asked whether “75 families should work all year to support soccer research” and called for folks to plow through the $6.9 billion NSF’s website to look for similarly dodgy-sounding grants, using keywords such as “success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus.”
Smith joins a long tradition of politicians, going back at least as far as the late Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., who in 1975 kicked off the Golden Fleece awards, with one given to a federally funded study of “The Sex Life of the Screw-Worm Fly.”
Other notable members of the fraternity are South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who in 1998, as a congressman, tried to freeze NSF’s budget after complaining the agency was funding study of ATMs, automatic teller machines. Only two years ago, then-presidential candidate John McCain, R-Ariz., blasted a $3 million study of bear DNA in a campaign ad.
The other part of this tradition is the public learning, after someone has taken the trouble to ask, that these studies are actually something much different than the complaints would suggest. Proxmire later admitted the screw-worm fly grant had been of major significance to study of this major livestock pest.
Long before he wandered off the Appalachian Trail to somehow arrive in Argentina, Sanford wandered away from explaining how the “ATM’s” he complained about were actually references to ” Asynchronous Transfer Mode,” the backbone technology underlying the Internet.
And McCain’s DNA study turns out to be essential to preserving grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act.
So, as you might expect, when we asked the National Science Foundation about the two grants that Smith mentioned, we learned a little more about them.
For example, the soccer study turns out to be computer scientists studying how remotely connected teams form to conduct “nanoscience, environmental engineering, earthquake engineering, chemical sciences, media research and tobacco research.”
And the “breaking things” study turns out to be acoustics experts ” pursuing fundamental advances in computational methods while solving several particularly challenging sound rendering problems,” so that the U.S. military, among others, can create more realistic combat simulators for troops.
“These aren’t about soccer research,” says the NSF’s Maria Zacharias. “All of these projects go through our very rigorous peer-review process,” she adds, part of what made the NSF the only one of 26 federal agencies to receive a “green” rating from the Bush administration in its initial rating of government management practices.
“First, Congressman Smith supports the NSF and its mission,” says Smith spokesman Charles Isom by email. He notes the NSF touted a soccer player study conducted by Northwestern University researchers under the first grant, and says Cornell promoted the second one as of use to the movie industry. “This video reflects his dedication to give taxpayers the opportunity to judge how their hard-earned money is being spent.”
Smith’s district, interestingly enough, has received more than $5 billion in corn subsides since 1995, according to Agriculture Department data, enough taxpayer-handout money to fund nearly a whole year of National Science Foundation grants. By his taxpayer accounting, that’s 500,000 families working all year long to hand out their money to farmers who saw corn prices reach about $7.88 a bushel in 2008, and who have enjoyed an ethanol boom, another federal handout, in the most recent of those years.
“Science grants are an easy target for politicians, frankly,” says science budget expert Al Teich of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The acoustics study is a classic example, he suggests, of politicians ridiculing a study based on an incomplete explanation, while ignoring its more fundamental purpose.
“Politicians and their citizen constituents have an essential role in deciding the allocation of federal funds,” Teich adds, but when they try to judge which grants are best individually, they usually end up in trouble.
“These kind of attacks are just anti-intellectualism, a blast at eggheads, basically,” says science historian Naomi Oreskes of the University of California, San Diego.
Since 1950, when NSF was founded, a tension has existed between the decision made then that peer review — scientists scoring each other’s work to fund the most worthy efforts — would be the way to fund research, rather than doling it out as earmarks from politicians, which was the other big idea favored by some then. “Experts are in a better position to know what’s worth the money and what isn’t,” Teich says.
Zacharias suggests that researchers need to work harder to let the public know “lab mice, soccer players, other critters” are just tools for scientists trying to answer complex questions, not an end in themselves.
“In the laboratory there are no fustian ranks, no brummagem aristocracies,” wrote Twain, putting it a bit more elegantly. “The domain of Science is a republic, and all its citizens are brothers and equals.”