Political review of science

Yep.  That is where the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology wants to take us. Moving now beyond ridiculing grants he doesn’t understand (a popular activity that goes back at least to Sen. Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards and, in some ways, back to a California legislator reading the Paleontology volume of the California Geological Survey on the floor of the California House in the 1860s), Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas has demanded access to the reviews of successful National Science Foundation proposals that, it appears, he personally doesn’t like. To say this puts a chilling effect on all NSF activities is putting it mildly.  Since the committee has not made clear what, precisely, they are looking for (other than “waste”), it isn’t clear how access to proposal reviews and internal judgements is going to do to reduce such waste.

Ironically, Congress itself is certainly a source of some true waste, if by waste we mean funding something other than the best science proposed.  Programs to direct research funds into states that don’t get much research funds allow uncompetitive proposals to be funded (EPSCoR). Program directors within NSF seem to be aware of how well their funds are being distributed geographically.  Continued emphasis on misguided “broader impacts” reduces the emphasis on groundbreaking scientific research, substituting a number of questionable activities that, arguably, would be better provided elsewhere (e.g., training of K-12 teachers by research scientists is often a laughable if well-intentioned affair with little real long-term impact). So, Congress, if you want to reduce the waste in NSF in the sense of not funding the best science being proposed, there might be some good places to look, but the current witch hunt doesn’t appear to have any decent targets in mind.

Instead it appears that Smith is looking for damaging quotes on research he finds unpalatable. Jeffrey Mervis’s ScienceInsider piece looks at it this way:

The Republican aides were looking for anything that Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), their boss as chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, could use to support his ongoing campaign to demonstrate how the $7 billion research agency is “wasting” taxpayer dollars on frivolous or low-priority projects, particularly in the social sciences. The Democratic staffers wanted to make sure that their boss, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the panel’s senior Democrat, knew enough about each grant to rebut any criticism that Smith might levy against the research.

What would be the result of this? The grants in question are unlikely to be terminated. Even if Congress does nothing, there are repercussions. Presumably NSF program directors, who have tremendous control over the process, would look to avoid funding something Smith might inquire about. (Don’t believe that program directors have much control? Ha. Having had members of a panel come to GG and ask how that new research program was going and having to tell them it wasn’t funded yielded the information that the proposal was number 1 out of the panel, which means that the program director killed it). Some reviewers could decline to review for NSF.

Look, NSF funded science is a use of federal funds and oversight to avoid, say, spending grants on vacations and a new house is perfectly valid. Controversies over how overhead was being spent were appropriate if unpleasant. Deciding that Congress wants to elect not to fund certain fields is, well, Congress’s privilege (last GG heard, there wasn’t a program in astrology, for instance, though you have to wonder if that is coming soon).  Trying though to micromanage research funding to only get the answers you want to the questions you want asked? That’s what think tanks like the Heritage Foundation are for.  Please leave NSF out of it.

Its hard to remember more than 14 years ago when science and NSF generally did better with Republicans than Democrats. Remembering that Smith was put in charge of the Committee by Republican leadership, if ever there was an argument for the entire scientific community to vote Democratic, this would be it. What exactly is the intent of putting an anti-science ideologue in as chair of the committee overseeing science if not to eliminate science from the federal government?

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