I was right: Congress’s attack on the NSF widens

Last month, I blogged about Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) passing an amendment blocking the National Science Foundation from funding most political science research.  I wrote:

This sort of political interference with the peer-review process, of course, sets a chilling precedent for all academic research, regardless of discipline.  (What’s next, an amendment banning computer science research, unless it has applications to scheduling baseball games or slicing apple pies?)

In the comments section of that post, I was pilloried by critics, who ridiculed my delusional fears about an anti-science witch hunt.  Obviously, they said, Congressional Republicans only wanted to slash dubious social science research: not computer science or the other hard sciences that people reading this blog really care about, and that everyone agrees are worthy.  Well, today I write to inform you that I was right, and my critics were wrong.  For the benefit of readers who might have missed it the first time, let me repeat that:

I was right, and my critics were wrong.

In this case, like in countless others, my “paranoid fears” about what could happen turned out to be preternaturally well-attuned to what would happen.

According to an article in Science, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the new chair of the ironically-named House Science Committee, held two hearings in which he “floated the idea of having every NSF grant application [in every field] include a statement of how the research, if funded, ‘would directly benefit the American people.’ ”  Connoisseurs of NSF proposals will know that every proposal already includes a “Broader Impacts” section, and that that section often borders on comic farce.  (“We expect further progress on the μ-approximate shortest vector problem to enthrall middle-school students and other members of the local community, especially if they happen to belong to underrepresented groups.”)  Now progress on the μ-approximate shortest vector problem also has to directly—directly—“benefit the American people.”  It’s not enough for such research to benefit science—arguably the least bad, least wasteful enterprise our sorry species has ever managed—and for science, in turn, to be a principal engine of the country’s economic and military strength, something that generally can’t be privatized because of a tragedy-of-the-commons problem, and something that economists say has repaid public investments many, many times over.  No, the benefit now needs to be “direct.”

The truth is, I find myself strangely indifferent to whether Smith gets his way or not.  On the negative side, sure, a pessimist might worry that this could spell the beginning of the end for American science.  But on the positive side, I would have been proven so massively right that, even as I held up my “Will Prove Quantum Complexity Theorems For Food” sign on a street corner or whatever, I’d have something to crow about until the end of my life.

34 Responses to “I was right: Congress’s attack on the NSF widens”

  1. Michael Mitzenmacher Says:

    Of the many arguments one could make against this, at least one is that even if one could imagine direct benefit to the American people for a specific project, political people won’t recognize it if they don’t want to, so making it a criterion seems like just an arbitrary way to allow politicians to kill funding for research directions and projects they don’t like.

    I’m reminded that the Robobees project (http://robobees.seas.harvard.edu/) (recently featured in Scientific American (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=robobee-project-building-flying-robots-insect-size) ) was THE TOP of Sean Hannity’s list of wasteful government spending (http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/hannity/blog/2010/03/12/waste-102-the-final-list/), as I blogged about before (http://mybiasedcoin.blogspot.com/2010/05/robobees-redux.html).

    Given that this project has a pretty good case for directly benefiting the American people, and it was still brought up in a piece of political theater about wasteful spending, I do hope more reasoned analysis will short-circuit Smith’s initiative.

  2. Bill Kaminsky Says:

    Scott, I think you need a regular series of posts on this blog which all carry the same title of

    I WAS RIGHT, AND MY CRITICS WERE WRONG

    I’d suggest this title be blinking, ALL CAPS, and blood red!, but that’s just me. ;)

    Seriously though, our fair American republic is electing too many to positions where they are rankly incompetent. Oy! :(

  3. Nex Says:

    Just curious, considering your contributions to the society would you say the money you receive from taxpayers is too little, too much or just right?

  4. Rahul Says:

    Obviously, they said, Congressional Republicans only wanted to slash dubious social science research: not computer science or the other hard sciences that people reading this blog really care about.

    Well, it’s not as if the Social Sciences have a monopoly on bad research…..

    I rephrase: People reading this blog (may) really care about good hard sciences research not all hard sciences research.

  5. John Gordon Says:

    Technically, you were wrong. This is a House GOP attack on the NSF, and that’s less than half of Congress.

    If you’d said House GOP you’d have been right.

  6. Rahul Says:

    Why do we have to get so defensive and outraged every time the Congress tried to exercise any oversight over the NSF? Of course, we can argue Congressmen are evil and know little about science et cetra. But that sort of “lack-of-expertise” argument would probably apply to most other things the Congress dabbles in: transport, security, commerce etc.

    Would we be justified in being as outraged if a Congressman attempted to meddle in the DoT or DoD or DoJ etc.?

    Why do we think the NSF as special and recoil in horror at any attempt to tweak it?

    If the arguments are about the doofosity of specific Congressmen or proposals then that I can understand. But we seem to be generically overprotective of NSF’s turf?

  7. John Sidles Says:

    Scott proclaims  “Political interference with the peer-review process, of course, sets a chilling precedent for all academic research, regardless of discipline.”

    Essential to public discourse is the presentation of all sides of any question, and it happens that (renowned Corpsman/scientist) Craig Venter has argued a contrasting point-of-view.

    My BibTeX database suggests Venter’s lecture “Manufacturing life: how synthetic {DNA} will change our world” (USCD Symposium The Atlantic Meets the Pacific October 8, 2012), which is available on-line as the YouTube video Manufacturing Life with J. Craig Venter.

    The following transcript encompasses 09:25-10:20):

    ———————————————–
    The Inside and Outside of Peer-Review

    If you look in at any area from the outside,
    and its not something you follow or know intimately,
    and there’s a major discovery or change,
    such as creating the first synthetic life-form,
    people’s first response is
       “things are changing way too fast.”

    If you’re working in the middle of it,
    and seeing how slow these discoveries come out,
    and you look at the federal budget,
    and how much money we actually invest in science,
    we should be outraged at how few real breakthroughs there are,
       and how slow they come.

    It’s because we fund a lot of “me too” research,
    versus breakthrough ideas and new ideas.
    And so it’s part of a slow grinding process,
    that takes things far longer than they should.
    No organization that was really trying to make progress,
    would ever settle for the kind of system
       and way that we fund science.


        — J. Craig Venter, 2012
    ———————————————–

    Venter’s peroration exhibits such a striking sophistication of cadence and logical structure, that it is catalogued in my BibTeX as a poem. That he achieves this poetic effect in extemporaneous speaking, is impressive and humbling (to me)!

    More broadly, in public forums Venter commonly asserts that taxpayers ought to expect 10X their present return-on-investment … and (as it seems to me) Venter may well be correct. If as STEM researchers we desire substantially more funding, than we had better deliver substantially more-and-better product, and in particular, we had better be training substantially more students, for substantially more jobs, in substantially many more new enterprises.

    Summary  Craig Venter is making a strong case, to a broad public audience, that the emerging exigencies, opportunities, and enterprises of the 21st century are such as to require transformational reforms in STEM peer review.

    Conclusion  To the degree that we in the STEM community are slow to implement reforms, we are scarcely justified in complaining when politicians take it upon themselves to do so!

  8. Scott Says:

    Michael Mitzenmacher #1:

      Of the many arguments one could make against this, at least one is that even if one could imagine direct benefit to the American people for a specific project, political people won’t recognize it if they don’t want to, so making it a criterion seems like just an arbitrary way to allow politicians to kill funding for research directions and projects they don’t like.

    Yes, precisely, and that’s also my answer to Rahul’s question about “why we have to get so defensive about this.” To me, it’s so obvious that this sort of thing is not put forward in good faith, that I have very little patience for people who try to pretend that it is. (“Relax, no one is accusing you of beating your wife. We’re just saying the questions of whether you beat her, and how badly you beat her, need to be opened up for discussion by the broad community…”)

  9. Scott Says:

    Nex #3:

      Just curious, considering your contributions to the society would you say the money you receive from taxpayers is too little, too much or just right?

    I’d say the amount I personally receive is just about right, and I’m very grateful for it. But I’d also say the amount that goes to basic research as a whole seems far less than optimal (say, from the standpoint of American national welfare). The main problem, as far as I can see, is simply that in many areas of science there are now armies of postdocs (extremely talented ones) who are unable to find permanent positions, and who therefore leave science. Or who, correctly foreseeing that situation, already “get off the train” in undergrad or grad school. If more of the top students were able to go into basic science (rather than Wall Street, etc.), I think it would both make the US more economically competitive and make the world a better place.

  10. John Sidles Says:

    Scott asserts  “The main problem, as far as I can see, is simply that in many areas of science there are now armies of postdocs (extremely talented ones) who are unable to find permanent positions, and who therefore leave science.”

    Scott, from a narrowly academic point of view, that is arguably the main problem. Yet from a broader social point-of-view, surely it is a symptom rather than a problem.

    Putting yourself in the position of a US Senator — and thereby assuming the responsibilities of that position — what in your view is the primary problem, of which unemployed postdocs are a symptom? And how can the STEM community best help recognize, analyze, and solve that problem?

    These are tough questions. Good. Because the long-term viability of the STEM enterprise depends utterly upon first asking good tough questions, and then answering them.

  11. X Says:

    Look, just claim your research will cure cancer. Every NIH grant proposal claims that, and the claim will be just as accurate for your research as theirs.

  12. Scott Says:

    John Sidles #10:

      Yet from a broader social point-of-view, surely it is a symptom rather than a problem.

    Yes, that’s correct. It’s a symptom of there not being enough permanent positions.

  13. Tyson Williams Says:

    But NSF grant applications are peer reviewed, right? Isn’t it possible that all researchers in a particular field (our maybe even all fields), when reviewing applications, might just ignore the “how this research directly benefits Americans” section?

  14. John Sidles Says:

    X blithely suggests:  “Just claim your research will cure cancer. Every NIH grant proposal claims that, and the claim will be just as accurate for your research as theirs.”

    In that regard, NIH Director Francis Collins gave a talk at last week’s TEDMED 2013 titled Can science take the next leap?

    The talk’s not on-line yet … and so we don’t know what Dr. Collins’ answer is … but that he’s willing to publicly tackle a good, tough, high-profile question, there’s zero doubt.

    Young STEM researchers in every discipline — who are seeking to establish viable careers within an almost inconceivably adverse environment — can hope that good answers are forthcoming.

    Fortunately, the STEM community can be entirely confident, that  if  when science *does* take the next transformational “leap” that Collins envisions — whatever it may turn out to be! — fundamental QIS/CT research will play the crucial role, of providing the requisite foundations in mathematics and physical science, from which that leap springs.

  15. John Sidles Says:

    PS to #14: TEDMED link (soon-to-be active, hopefully): Francis Collins: Can science take the next leap?

  16. wolfgang Says:

    >> let me repeat that: I was right, and my critics were wrong.
    >> I would have been proven so massively right that … I’d
    >> have something to crow about until the end of my life.

    congratulations! this is what the interweb is all about, so you should enjoy this moment, which is the compensation I guess for all those hours of arguing with strangers and reading pointless comments (like this one).

  17. Greg Kochanski Says:

    We saw the same stupidity in the research funding agencies in the UK, which is why I’m now in industry in the US.

    You’re welcome to crib from my blog posts on the topic: http://kochanski.org/blog/?p=140 and http://kochanski.org/blog/?p=262

  18. Rahul Says:

    Scott #9:

    The main problem, as far as I can see, is simply that in many areas of science there are now armies of postdocs (extremely talented ones) who are unable to find permanent positions, and who therefore leave science.

    Leave science or leave academia?

  19. Jason Says:

    I am really looking forward to Lubos’s post ridiculing Scott for his willingness to inflict untold harm on society as long as he is proven right.

  20. Scott Says:

    Rahul #18: I meant “leave science.”

    People who go somewhere like Microsoft Research obviously haven’t left science, and should barely even be counted as having “left academia”! The problem is that there’s only a handful of companies today (Microsoft, IBM?, HP??…) that still sponsor curiosity-driven research in anything like the model of the old Bell Labs (which itself is basically gone). Typically, people who go to Wall Street or Silicon Valley really can be said to have “left science.”

    (Obvious caveats: that’s not to say they can’t do other wonderful things! :-) And in many individual cases, leaving science for Wall Street or Silicon Valley can absolutely be the right decision—I certainly understand the reasons for it, and I’m not a snob who looks down on anyone doing anything different than what I do. I just wish there were enough permanent positions so that, of the people who wanted to remain in science, more of them were able to.)

  21. Rahul Says:

    Scott #20:

    Fair enough. Though another route is leaving academia and doing applied science. I know quite a few physics and chemistry PhD’s happily employed in industrial research or product development departments. And I wouldn’t consider that as “leaving science”.

    My point is there’s plenty of ways to do good science outside of academia and NSF funding models. Personally, oftentimes I consider the tragic loss of a wannabe academic to industry as a net gain to society.

  22. Rahul Says:

    Scott in #9 made an interesting assertion:

    [The funding] amount that goes to basic research as a whole seems far less than optimal (say, from the standpoint of American national welfare).

    He might indeed be correct; but if one were to want to test this hypothesis in a more empirical manner, what would be the options? How does one know (even approximately) what is the optimal amount of funding?

    Are there good objective ways to analyse this question?

  23. Scott Says:

    Rahul: I’ve personally mentored several students as they decided that industry rather than academia would be the best choice for them, so this isn’t just an “academic” (har har) question for me! And for at least one student, I saw how the decision to go to industry dramatically changed her life for the better: from flailing around aimlessly to becoming to a near-instant success.

    You’re right that many people who go to industry do wonderful applied research. For me, though, the crucial question is whether those people are allowed (or better yet, encouraged) to publish their results openly. At a few places (like MSR) the answer is yes, but very often the answer is no. And if they don’t publish, then it’s difficult or impossible for other people to build on what they did.

  24. Rahul Says:

    Scott #23:

    About open publication: I agree that several (rather, most) industrial labs are very secretive and the culture is not very dissemination friendly. OTOH, I don’t blame them: It may not always be possible to run a business otherwise.

    OTOH, these are strategic decisions with a long historical precedent. Go back three centuries if you will and the invention and industrial culture was as secretive if not more.

    My point is, in spite of secrecy the work itself can be very valuable to society. Besides, most things can be fairly easily reverse engineered these days, so the impact of “secret industrial research” on hindering further progress is not immense.

    If they want to make money of it they have to sell it. Once they sell it others can figure out how it works. The more important part is that someone devotes the time and money to figure out a solution!

  25. Chris Says:

    You could just say the project will employ several postdoctoral researchers who would otherwise head to Wall St, where they would wreak untold havoc on the American people by building sophisticated models that provide an excuse for making enormous bets that hobble the economy when they go wrong.

  26. collin237 Says:

    Every scientific research program is of direct benefit to anyone willing (i.e., curious enough) and able (i.e., knowledgeable enough) to participate. The problem is that education in the USA is so poor that there are hardly any such people. The Department of Education is the only door Congress should be knocking on. But as usual, they have no sense of logic.

  27. Michael Vassar Says:

    FWIW, I created MetaMed largely because I don’t believe that science privatisation suffers from a significant tragedy of the commons problem. You see, for the most part you can’t actually *use* science, even if it’s freely available to all, unless you are yourself a scientist. Endless science with commercial value is already published openly and left unused, so I expect that we can afford to repackage existing results, protect no IP, and still not face serious competition.

    Typically, science is used to make products, and products can be used by non-scientists, but I think that the use of science, applied to healing the sick, can be sold directly. So far, the market appears to me to be proving me even more right than congress is proving you, and pleasantly, I get to be unconflicted in my hope that it will continue to do so.

    Right now though, I can do more than hope for success attributed to vague impersonal market forces. I can also hope for success thanks to the interest that excellent scientists such as yourself and your readers take in MetaMed, either as customers, employees, media contacts, scientific advisors, or in roles of their own invention. The most important group that I need to lay my hope upon may turn out to be scientists with skill at managing other researchers. For my part, it seems that I’m already in a place to offer viable careers within an otherwise almost inconceivably adverse environment for young STEM researchers in every discipline, careers that I hope can dramatically change scientists’ lives for the better, offering a previously unavailable mix of the benefits of options like Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and scientific communities such as MS research.

    If these issues matter to you, please look us up.

  28. Silas Barta Says:

    @Rahul: But that sort of “lack-of-expertise” argument would probably apply to most other things the Congress dabbles in: transport, security, commerce etc.

    Would we be justified in being as outraged if a Congressman attempted to meddle in the DoT or DoD or DoJ etc.?

    Good point. “Get your government hands off my military!”

  29. Luke G Says:

    @Rahul #6: There’s outrage on the legislature’s lack of expertise not just in science, but in every aspect. Washington is full of lobbyists who are representatives of such outrage. There’s nothing special here about Scott and scientists being upset.

  30. Vadim Says:

    Legislators can’t be experts on every topic they have to legislate on, but that’s why they each have staff to do research, why there’s a congressional research service, and why they have the ability to solicit (and even subpoena) testimony from experts. When they choose not to do their homework and make purely political decisions instead, it’s frustrating to say the least. Of course it’s not unique to science funding. The Air Force has been trying to get rid of their C-5A Galaxy transport planes but congress won’t allow it, and it’s the same story with bases, weapons systems, and other programs the military doesn’t want or need but congress forces onto them for the sake of ostensibly bringing jobs to their home districts, or more cynically (and likely), improving profits for defense contractors who contribute to their campaigns. Science funding is a very good example of congress failing America, but sadly it’s just a symptom of a wider problem.

  31. John Sidles Says:

    Older Shtetl optimized readers will recall a celebrated — and eerily prescient — The Onion feature story of Jan 17, 2001, titled “Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over’.”

    Is history repeating itself? Because this week’s The Onion feature story is “Nation Starting To Realize New Era Of American Innovation Never Gonna Happen.”

    After nearly a decade of promises that the nation was on the brink of a technological, economic, and scientific golden age, citizens across the country confirmed Monday they are now realizing a bold new era of American innovation is just flat-out not gonna happen.

    According to a recent survey, 41 percent of Americans said they had abandoned any hope of the U.S. developing a progressive blueprint for reversing global warming. Seventy-nine percent claimed that the idea of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter blazing the trail to a new technological paradigm is “just plain dumb if you really think about it.” And when asked if they truly and honestly believed the United States would at any point pioneer a new age of research and development rivaling that of the Space Race era, 45 percent of survey respondents immediately replied with a simple “Nope,” while the remaining 55 percent stared silently at the ground for several moments before quietly chuckling and shaking their heads.

    Many experts have reportedly echoed the increasing skepticism that rapid and broad-based scientific growth would ever arrive in any form whatsoever.

    During the coming decade, a key question for the global STEM community — in essence, the question that Congress will require STEM researchers to answer — amounts to “Is The Onion right?”

    Is this an unreasonable question? Not when you’re paying the research bills!

    Will STEM researchers conceive answers that are comparably transformational to the STEM answers that were conceived in the 1950s-1990s? That will be interesting to see!

    The 1950s-1990s were characterized by transformational STEM roadmaps that worked; that were associated to enterprises like the space program, the VLSI industry, and the Genome Project; and that were initiated by STEM leaders whose names are household words: von Neumann, von Braun, Ramo, Wooldridge, Turing, Moore, Noyce, Groves, Hood, Venter (and more).

    Can we do it again? The 2002 and 2004 QIST Roadmaps represent a valiant attempt that (as it seems to me) has not yet definitely fallen short of what the public is hoping that we can achieve.

  32. Jeff Says:

    Just fyi, your post got mentioned here : http://www.metafilter.com/127598/Lamar-Smith-Chairs-House-Science-Committee#4954304

  33. Linkblogging for 04/05/13 | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] Meanwhile, links: Paul Magrs takes a transphobic Doctor Who fan to task Lee Griffin explains the new orphan works provisions in UK copyright law Iain Coleman is looking at each TV Doctor Who story, from the beginning, from a scientific point of view Alex Wilcock remembers the Labour party in government and discusses a book by Conrad Russell. Sean Carrol on bad science reporting The person who killed the snooper’s charter The Heresiarch on Richard Dawkins once again criticising something he doesn’t understand And Scott Aaronson on the US Congress’ attack on science [...]

  34. Lawyers and the Politics of Science | Hot and Cold Fusion Says:

    [...] This kind of change has the potential to seriously impact a broad swath of science.  My favorite Quantum Computing blogger warned about it here and followed up with a sober assessment. [...]

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