WARNING: This post makes (what turned out in retrospect to be) advanced use of sarcasm, irony, and absurdism. Indeed, even after I added a disclaimer explaining the sarcasm, many commenters still responded as if I actually favored gutting the National Science Foundation. (Unless, of course, those commenters were also being sarcastic—in which case, touche!)
The confusion is completely my fault. When I write a post, I have in my mind a reader who’s read this blog for a while, and knows that obviously I don’t favor gutting the fraction of a percentage of the Federal budget devoted to the progress of human understanding and American leadership thereof; obviously the NSF wastes plenty of money, but if it didn’t, then it would be doing a terrible job, because research is all about trying stuff that has a good chance of failure; obviously if you were seriously looking for waste, you could find orders of magnitude more of it in the military and elsewhere. So then the only remaining question is: how can we best have fun with a disgusting and contemptible situation? I forgot how many people come to this blog not having any idea who I am or why I’m writing—and for that, I sincerely apologize.
Now, if you’d like a sarcasm-detection challenge, I did leave lots of hints in the following post that I didn’t actually agree with Congressman Smith. See how many of them you can find!
As some of you may have heard, the incoming Republican majority in Congress has a new initiative called YouCut, which lets ordinary Americans like me propose government programs for termination. So imagine how excited I was to learn that YouCut’s first target—yes, its first target—was that notoriously bloated white elephant, the National Science Foundation. Admittedly, I’ve already tried to save NSF from some wasteful expenditures, in my occasional role as an NSF panel member. But this is my first chance to join in as a plain US citizen.
In a video explaining the new initiative, Congressman Adrian Smith concedes that the NSF supports “worthy research in the hard sciences,” but then gives two examples of NSF grants that strike him as wasteful: one involving collaboration among soccer players, the other involving modeling the sound of breaking objects. This article gives some more detail about the projects in question.
While I can’t wait to participate, I have a few questions before I start:
- Exactly which sciences count as “hard”? Once the pitchforks are raised, how far do we go? Is math fair game? What about economics, cosmology, evolutionary biology?
- Has there ever been a research project that couldn’t be described in such a way as to sound absurd? (“Even in the middle of a war, university academics in Chicago are spending taxpayer dollars in a quixotic attempt to smash teeny-tiny uranium atoms underneath a football field…”)
- Years ago, several commenters on my and Lance’s blogs eloquently argued that science funding isn’t a traditional left vs. right issue, that Republicans are at least as friendly to science as Democrats, and that viewing the modern GOP as the “party of ignorance” is inaccurate, simplistic, and offensive. Would any of those commenters kindly help us understand what’s going on?
Let me end this post with a request: I want all of my readers to visit the YouCut page, and propose that quantum computing and theoretical computer science research be completely eliminated. Here’s my own CAREER Award; go ahead and cite it by number as a particularly egregious example of government waste.
See, I’m hungry for the honor (not to mention the free publicity) of seeing my own favorite research topics attacked on the floor of the House. As we all know, it’s child’s play to make fun of theoretical computer science: its abstruseness, its obvious irrelevance to national goals—however infinitesimal the cost is compared to (say) corn subsidies or defense contracts for stuff the military doesn’t want, however gargantuan the payoffs of such research have been in the past. So what are Reps. Eric Cantor and Adrian Smith waiting for? I dare them to do it!
Obviously, though, before the House Republicans end American participation in theoretical computer science, they’ll want to familiarize themselves with what our tiny little field actually is. To that end, let me humbly offer the links on the sidebar to the right as one place to get started.
Update (12/18): When a friend read this post, his first reaction was that the sarcasm would be lost on most readers. I didn’t believe him. See, I exist in a frame of reference wherein, when the mob shows up at your house with torches, you don’t argue with them. Instead you say: “Oh, so you’re the ones here to burn me? Then please, let’s get started! There’s plenty of flammable fat around my torso area. Do you prefer rare, medium, or well done?” That way, at least history will record you as having gone down with your middle finger proudly aloft, rather than cowering in a corner. However, it’s now obvious that my friend was right. So, for the literal-minded: I think reacting to our country’s debt crisis by looking for NSF grants to ridicule is a really terrible idea, for reasons that are so self-evident I’ll simply provide some blank space for you to fill them in yourself: _______________________________. And, having devoted my whole career to quantum computing and theoretical computer science research, I don’t wish to see them eliminated. On the other hand, if science in United States were going to be dismantled (which, despite the efforts of some politicians, I don’t think it will be), then I’d consider it an honor for theoretical computer science to be the first in the crosshairs.