Stop pay­ing for stupid science

With NSF funds lim­ited, is $ 697, 177 for a cli­mate change mu­si­cal worth it?

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Henry I. Miller Henry I. Miller, a physi­cian and molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist, is a fel­low at Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion. He was the found­ing di­rec­tor of the FDA’s Of­fice of Biotech­nol­ogy.

The Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion too of­ten short­changes Amer­i­can taxpayers by fund­ing low- value, low- pri­or­ity so­cial science projects.

Here are some doozies: the veil­ing- fash­ion in­dus­try in Tur­key, Vik­ing tex­tiles in Ice­land, the “so­cial im­pacts” of tourism in the north­ern tip of Nor­way, le­gal ca­reers in tran­si­tion fol­low­ing law school, and whether hunger causes cou­ples to fight ( us­ing the num­ber of pins stuck in voodoo dolls as a mea­sure of ag­gres­sive feel­ings).

In a world in which re­search fund­ing is a zero- sum game, the foun­da­tion’s Di­rec­torate for So­cial, Be­hav­ioral and Eco­nomic Sciences ( SBE) has shown that it lacks suf­fi­cient in­tegrity and pro­fes­sional judg­ment to be trusted.

Sev­eral aca­demics and oth­ers have re­cently writ­ten com­men­taries prais­ing the value of so­cial science projects and con­demn­ing con­gres­sional at­tempts to rein them in. The wrong­headed no­tion that so­cial science projects are in­her­ently just as wor­thy as ba­sic re­search in the phys­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal sciences and en­gi­neer­ing has dis­torted and di­min­ished the value of public in­vest­ment in sci­en­tific re­search.

Do the man­darins of the so­cial sciences re­ally be­lieve that a study of de­pic­tions of an­i­mals in Na­tional Ge­o­graphic mag­a­zine ( which the foun­da­tion funded) should take prece­dence over re­search to iden­tify mark­ers for Alzheimer’s dis­ease or pan­cre­atic can­cer? A large frac­tion of highly ranked, im­por­tant grant pro­pos­als are not ac­cepted be­cause of lim­ited re­sources.

The House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives passed leg­is­la­tion in May that would go a long way to­ward stop­ping the creep of medi­ocre sci­en­tific re­search fund­ing at the foun­da­tion.

In re­cent years, Congress has an­nu­ally ap­proved a $ 6- bil­lion al­lo­ca­tion to the NSF to spend as it sees fit. The Amer­ica COM­PETES Reau­tho­riza­tion Act of 2015 would in­stead des­ig­nate some sci­en­tific dis­ci­plines as more im­por­tant than oth­ers by restor­ing the con­gres­sional prac­tice of al­lo­cat­ing funds by re­search ar­eas. It also sharply re­duces the foun­da­tion’s abil­ity to fund the so­cial sciences and the geo­sciences.

To be sure, politi­cians should not make de­ci­sions about in­di­vid­ual grant pro­pos­als, but they are re­spon­si­ble for ex­er­cis­ing over­sight of fed­eral agen­cies, set­ting over­all pri­or­i­ties and com­bat­ing waste, fraud and abuse — and stu­pid­ity.

The pro­posed changes are no- brain­ers. Some of the SBE di­rec­torate’s projects — such as a ma­jor pro­gram to de­velop the next gen­er­a­tion of math­e­mat­i­cal and sta­tis­ti­cal al­go­rithms for the de­tec­tion of chem­i­cal agents and bi­o­log­i­cal threats — are wor­thy. But only some.

The foun­da­tion has di­rected mil­lions of tax­payer dol­lars to stud­ies such as how to ride a bi­cy­cle, whether po­lit­i­cal views are ge­net­i­cally pre­de­ter­mined, whether par­ents choose trendy baby names, when is the best time to buy a ticket to a sold- out sport­ing event and why the same teams al­ways seem to dom­i­nate the NCAA bas­ket­ball play­offs.

As for the geo­sciences, re­search on cli­mate change is le­git­i­mate — when it is per­formed by me­te­o­rol­o­gists, oceanog­ra­phers, physi­cists and bi­ol­o­gists. But the NSF and other fed­eral agen­cies have been fund­ing re­dun­dant, po­lit­i­cally over­heated and even lu­di­crous cli­mate change boon­dog­gles. For ex­am­ple, the NSF has wasted mil­lions of dol­lars on projects that in­clude a cli­mate change mu­si­cal ($ 697,177), a se­ries of games ($ 449,972) and art shows ($ 2.51 mil­lion).

The Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion was cre­ated in 1950 to en­sure U. S. lead­er­ship in ar­eas of science and tech­nol­ogy that are es­sen­tial to eco­nomic growth and na­tional se­cu­rity. Un­for­tu­nately, tight fed­eral bud­gets and a wave of po­lit­i­cally cor­rect but sci­en­tif­i­cally mar­ginal re­search pri­or­i­ties ( and over- reg­u­la­tion, which is another story) have put U. S. lead­er­ship at risk.

The Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco- nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment projects that China will over­take the United States in re­search and de­vel­op­ment spend­ing by 2020. If we don’t set smarter re­search pri­or­i­ties and in­crease over­all spend­ing, Amer­ica’s sci­en­tists and busi­nesses face the prospect of be­com­ing also- rans in tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion, the lifeblood of the U. S. econ­omy.

It’s not sur­pris­ing that some in academia feel the need to re­buke leg­is­la­tors who want to set ra­tio­nal pri­or­i­ties for the kinds of re­search funded by tax­payer dol­lars. But Congress is right to shift the sta­tus quo to em­pha­size re­search that is in the na­tional in­ter­est.

At a time when bud­getary re­straints at the NSF, the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health and other fed­eral agen­cies are caus­ing much cru­cial re­search to go un­funded, why should we per­mit the NSF — or any fed­eral agency, for that mat­ter — to squan­der money on triv­ial pur­suits? We’re smarter than that.

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