Should the Government Fund Only Science in the “National Interest”?

Nov 3, 2014

Photograph by James Leynse, Corbis

By Eli Kintisch

The glass-and-concrete headquarters of the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, normally hosts scientists who decide the fate of fellow researchers’ grant proposals. But in a nondescript spare office on the 12th floor, new players have set up shop: congressional aides reviewing the merits of scientific studies conducted with government funding.

The two aides are evaluating the scientific merit of research proposals submitted to the the $7-billion-per-year agency, the nation’s biggest funder of basic science initiatives. They’ve selected several dozen federal science grants for special scrutiny, in a move that critics say reflects a conservative political agenda at work. Among these are a climate change education project, archaeology studies in Ethiopia, anthropology work in Argentina, and others dating back to 2005.

The aides, who have been at the NSF since August, have begun a review process that critics say threatens to topple a long-standing wall at the agency between science and politics. The new process reflects an escalating debate between scientists and politicians on Capitol Hill over how much of a say Congress should have in the scientific enterprise.

In recent years, that debate has included skirmishes over appointments at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the role of science at the Environmental Protection Agency under various administrations, and, indeed, the conduct of the committee that’s investigating the NSF—the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.


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20 comments on “Should the Government Fund Only Science in the “National Interest”?

  • The UK already tried this a few years ago. Brown’s government wanted to try limiting funding to research that would be “useful”. The scientists patiently explained this wouldn’t work because you have to do the research to know what’s useful! All our modern gadgets are based on knowledge of electronics and quantum mechanics that originated from the kind of research these measures would discourage. Scientists wondered why electrons’ atomic orbits didn’t decay due to the radiation reaction. Pragmatists wouldn’t care, but it’s a good thing they didn’t decide whether the question was funded.

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  • The bill says it means that the research would increase “economic competitiveness,” support health or defense, or promote “the progress of science.”

    Fine. Every approved application should cite promotion of the progress of science and that only.

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  • I sometimes wonder whether ideologies are not just as dangerous as religions. They have parallels. An ideology starts out as a thought bubble, that someone writes down and tries to shoe horn onto society. Marx and Hitler are simple examples. An ideology starts from an idea, and tries to mold the idea onto humanity, regardless of the evidence or science. If it doesn’t fit, they persist. They have a blind faith in their ideology. Religion very much follows this model. They are constantly trying to fit religion into our lives despite the mountains of evidence and science that says its man creating god in his own image.

    So the guys, motivated by a conservative free market only ideology, are trying to select only that science, that will support their world view. Sounds very much like priests.

    An ideology of any colour is an argument in the absence of evidence. It’s backwards thinking. Come up with the idea first and try to make it fit the evidence after. The science guys in the building are looking at funding grants that will adduce evidence on a matter first, and thus inform future research.

    Evidence first. Ideology and religion second.

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  • The two aides are evaluating the scientific merit of research proposals submitted to the the $7-billion-per-year agency, the nation’s biggest funder of basic science initiatives.

    TWO? – I would have to wonder what scientific credentials these two have, and what range of scientific expertise they are supposed to cover in their evaluations.
    Do we have 2 geniuses who are familiar at expert level with the whole range of thousands of scientific discoveries across electronics, physics, engineering, chemistry, geology, meteorology, biology, bacteriology, neuroscience …etc. … or do we have 2 ideological political muppets with no idea, and Dunning-Kruger confidence?

    Also evaluating $7 of research projects properly, seems quite a work-load for TWO people!!

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  • I note that social science is particularly targetted. In my opinion this is exactly where we need to step up the research. I know social science is often condemned as being soft and agenda driven, but we do need this stuff and we do need to learn how to do it better. More than ever we need to make better policy decisions and model our social futures. (For myself I would love to do work on the public perception of social metrics to find ways of better closing the rational, democratic servo control loop of voting choices.)

    Raw hard science goes without question as an essential. As an inventor by profession I have been on many state funded development projects. The least fruitful have always been those not possessing an upfront survey of new science and technology. Planning for serendipity by scouting the rich fields of research pays just about every time

    And lest we forget

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  • This is the first step toward dogma.

    Just imagine this a few hundred years ago when the catlicks were prominent in deciding national interests. We’d only have flaky evidence that the Sun orbited the earth because it wasn’t in their interests to demonstrate otherwise.

    Given the lack of wit among politicians everywhere, this stupidity wants putting to bed quickly and permanently.

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  • Should the Government Fund Only Science in the “National Interest”?

    The links show that the Grand Old Profiteers – well funded stooges of dirty and dangerous industries, can be relied on to put corporate profits before public interest and public safety!

    The claim that they have any interest whatever in the “pubic interest” over corporate interest, is laughable, if it was not for the serious issue, that gullible voters fail to recognise it as “big lie” propaganda!

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  • Red Dog Nov 4, 2014 at 11:37 am

    Keep in mind that the congressional aids work for people like the congressman who thought that evolution and the big bang were “Lies Straight From The Pit Of Hell”

    Some of the OP links go directly or indirectly to the deniers’ websites of the carbon propagandist Heartland Institute, and the pseudo-expert, pseudoscience, Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, or NIPCC, as its (tarted-up) name (falsely) suggests, (in order to cause confusion) is (claimed to be) an international panel of scientists and scholars….. .. issuing “alternative” denialist reports on climate issues, designed to dishonestly rubbish and doubt-monger, the work of competent IPCC scientists!

    Perhaps more appropriate title for the NIPCC stooges, is the title,
    Nasty Incompetent Propagandist Carbonaceous Committee!

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  • Perhaps more appropriate title for the NIPCC stooges, is the title,
    Nasty Incompetent Propagandist Carbonaceous Committee!

    Or on further reflection:-
    Nasty Incompetent Propagandist Carbonaceous Charlatans!

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  • @ Alan

    TWO? [ ] stooges

    One more would make it the ‘three stooges’. At the surface, they collectively sound like “Smithers”.

    Lamar Smith and his gaseous “national security’ requisite – who, with equal political power, can scrutinize, and possibly ride rough-shod, over him?

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  • 14
    bonnie says:

    Hopefully, Broun has been relegated to the proverbial back-of-the-class, after his laughable diatribe made the media rounds.

    In what I think was a political move, CNN posted a month old Weather Channel spat close to election day. This dude probably shares the same bed with Lamar Smith. @OP predicts Republicans (God’s Own Party), will regain some control. Agreed, with the help of riding the President’s (allegedly) low approval rating coattails.

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  • I’m sure we can recall a few Bush appointees of dubious character!

    George Deutsch- NASA Public Affairs Officer

    With his pseudo-science and falsified qualifications –

    As reported by the New York Times:

    Mr. Deutsch told public affairs workers to limit reporters’ access to a top climate scientist and told a Web designer to add the word “theory” at every mention of the Big Bang.
    Texas A&M University confirmed that he did not graduate from there, as his résumé on file at the agency asserted.

    and many others!

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  • There would be few of us on this site who would not understand the importance of curiosity driven science from my point of view ‘What fact is not useful?’. However in the general community I have met a staggering many who have no idea how many fundamental ideas that at the time had no known usefulness and who fall under the illusion that only things they understand are of some benefit.

    I remember arguing with another teacher at my school about the money spend on the space program after WW2. She was adamant that we sunk billions into a wasted enterprise. After pointing out that the USA spend Billions not us here down under (thanks guys, much appreciated), I then started to list just the useful things satellites do, weather, telecommunications, google maps, assisting in mineral exploration and on an on. You could see in spite of the whole world benefiting on a daily basis she just didn’t associate one with the other let alone even know of fundamental calculations of Kepler and Newton that made this possible. We need to gently but firmly hold them up to their own ignorance. You should be embarrassed to not know anything about how the world around you works, unless you do the world is going to just happen to you.

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  • Hi Reckless. I’ve been part of a discussion about the supposed wasted billions as well. It’s not as if we waste money on useless items as a rule?? ( sarcasm) Think of the squillions wasted on advertising? Junk food? Needless packaging? Inflated salaries of CEOs ? The list is infinite.

    Apart from the associated benefits arising as side effects of space ventures, it satisfies our human quest for knowledge. Imagine if the early explorers had not ventured into the uncharted waters of the Pacific?

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  • Hi there Nitya,

    Yes, and I’d extend that to every field of science. None of us are experts in much outside of a few specialised fields that we work in or have as hobbies. However IMO what sets us apart as a society now to the degree we can from our simpler beginnings, what has increased our life-spans and advanced our societies is just our collective knowledge. What they are essentially saying is “We only want to work with the knowledge we have, don’t give us more just this is fine.”. Imagine if society had stopped looking at the universe when we believed in aether or in medicine the humours being out of alignment, or if we had stopped Faraday’s experiments in electromagnetism (sorry I can’t imagine any way this electricity could be useful, funding cut!)? Many of these insights had no practical application at the time and were only of interest in an academic sense.

    I often wonder how much this has hurt us already. Have cures for cancer and genetic diseases been delayed by decades due to penny pinching myopic morons? How many die each year if we were a culture that embraced knowledge over ignorance? It amazes me that the most ignorant people I know are offended by the very thought that we might be evolved from what they consider lower life forms and yet they refuse to use the only thing that defines us as unique in comparison. They go so far as to get angry that other members of their species (who make their sustained long and comfortable existence possible) would like to know more.

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  • Reckless Monkey Nov 5, 2014 at 1:22 am

    Yes, and I’d extend that to every field of science. None of us are experts in much outside of a few specialised fields that we work in or have as hobbies.

    The normal diverse teams of government scientists should be able to sort out some priority areas and dump any pseudoscience trying it on for a grant, but adding political muppets to expert teams, can only be damaging and time wasting – as the likes Bush and Treddinick repeatedly proved.

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  • reading just the headline I’d say “yes, absolutely”

    then again, all science funding is in the national interest. looking at it the other way, should the government decide what aspects of reality this nation is better off being ignorant about?

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