QCut

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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…”)
  3. 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.

126 Responses to “QCut”

  1. Steve Flammia Says:

    Scott, I hope you’re not serious. We shouldn’t dignify this with a participatory response. Surely there are better ways to address this.

  2. Steve Flammia Says:

    Actually, why don’t we launch YouTax, where Ordinary Americans get to pick the the marginal income tax rates?

  3. Chris Granade Says:

    Steve, I love your suggestion. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If the Republicans are cool with unscientific Internet polls being what they call democracy, why not show them the flip side of the coin?

  4. Scott Says:

    Steve: Actually my first idea, inspired by this Far Side cartoon, was to ask the House Republicans to cut all research involving category theory. I decided against mostly out of personal liking for John Baez. :-)

    Let me second Chris: I also like your response! I’ll be grateful for any other suggested responses that go beyond my own personal specialty of taunting one’s executioners.

  5. Carl Says:

    “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.”

    You can’t honestly believe that, can you? Not knowing what a thing is has never been an obstacle to being outraged by it and demanding its elimination. From the arts to the hard sciences, ignorance is no bar to vituperative denouncement.

  6. asterix Says:

    Of course the proposed research projects do not sound that ridiculous. I think the soccer research is about automatically determining team ball possession, i.e. using computer vision (?) to keep track of a fast moving object. Seems pretty useful, mainstream.

  7. Paul Chiusano Says:

    Scott, do you really think a large central beuracracy like the NSF is a good setup for determining resource allocation for scientific research? Or is it just that the NSF is better than nothing?

  8. Scott Says:

    Paul: “Better than nothing” is sort of an understatement. By analogy, the United States is a deeply imperfect country; there are countless ways that we could be allocating our resources and generally managing things better. But that doesn’t imply that I wish to see the US destroyed by invading armies.

  9. Sariel Says:

    I think your research is safe – as long as you dont work on Gubits (i.e., gay qubits).

  10. Xamuel Says:

    Mathematics should be safe: I’ve heard Karl Rove uses it.

  11. John Sidles Says:

    My wife Connie served an (unpaid) two-year term on the Seattle School Board … an experience that taught us never to mock any politician of any persuasion.

    The job of a politician is harder than can be easily imagined … to repay their efforts with mockery and disrespect IMHO can have no good effects.

    That “the better angels of our nature” (as Lincoln put it) reach out to the better angels of our fellow citizens—including politicians most especially—seems to me to be much the sounder strategy in the long run, no matter how much patience and tolerance may be required (from all concerned), to ensure that our respective angels heed one another.

  12. Scott Says:

    John, what if the politicians in question were mocking scientists first?

  13. John Sidles Says:

    I will add, that a Google-enabled lexical analysis suggests that the adverse STEM trends from which all suffer—younger people in particular—began in the 1980s, and have continued more-or-less unabated under both liberal and conservative administrations.

    So why blame politicians? Blame the senior STEM cohort instead. Blame … well … uhhh … my generation.

  14. rrtucci Says:

    I don’t understand how Republican’s can advocate cutting science. China will have us for breakfast.

    Steel demand by country (2010)

    China- 576 million tons
    EU-107
    US- 88
    India-63
    Japan-61

  15. Anonymous Grad Student Says:

    Criticizers of the NSF and academia fail to realize that the cost-benefit ratio from investment in science and education is better than investment in almost anything else. The 21st century economy revolves around scientific innovation and expertise, as does American security, the Republicans’ sacred cow for government funding.

    The big ideas and revolutions in science continue to come largely from academia while the private sector engineers these ideas into profitable products, which is fine. When incredible research comes from industry (e.g. Bell Labs) the scientists involved have been trained by and collaborate with professors. Academics should be proud of the ivory tower, and not shy away from defending its value when it comes under scrutiny.

  16. Darf Ferrara Says:

    Scot, I really enjoy your blog, so obviously I find your research to have value, even aside from any practical applications that follow from it. Certainly your research has value, but cancer research has value as well, and alleviating the pain of people who are suffering by allocating resources to medicine now also has value. Artistic work also has value as well. English civilization would be much poorer if Shakespeare had never written. How should scarce resources be allocated for everything that could possibly be funded? By claiming that your research deserves funding, you are arguing that someone else’s cancer research is less valueable than your research. My own opinion is that the price mechanism and property rights is the best way to allocate resources.

    When it comes to our current budget problems, the NSF is a pretty stupid place to start though. We could probably save quite a bit of money by pulling out of unnecessary wars.

  17. Terry Locklen Says:

    Darf: yes, most people would agree that cancer research is more valuable than TCS. That is why it is funded at orders of magnitude higher levels! But you have to consider marginal utilities: is the marginal benefit of an additional $10 million in cancer funding (a drop in the bucket) worth more than the marginal loss of $10 million less in TCS funding (a huge cut)? Your argument sounds similar to the republican argument that taxes should always be lowered, no matter what the current tax rate. There is some optimal balance to be reached.

  18. Peter D Says:

    The absolute last thing one should cut is education and research since those are investments in real resources of the future.
    Unfortunately, people still think that US Government budget is like a household budget and thus deficits are bad. The truth is, it is nothing like a household budget, instead, government deficit is the private sector’s surplus, dollar-for-dollar, by definition. US government does not need taxes or borrowing to be able to spend, since all spending is changing numbers on a spreadsheet at the Fed. Taxes don’t fund anything. They exist to establish a currency (people have to work to earn US dollars so that they can extinguish their tax liabilities) and to regulate the monetary base to prevent too much demand (too much money chasing too few goods, aka inflation.) Spending is not constrained by taxes!
    But even if it were, cutting education and research is a national suicide. We’ll see how it will work in the UK. I hope we won’t have to see how it works in the US.

  19. Beltway Bandito Says:

    As a real-life inside the beltway bureaucrat (not kidding), I can say that the politicos deserve a lot more credit for intelligence than most academics would allow. They know that these cuts will reduce the deficit by a whopping .01%, but it makes great theater: red-blooded patriots take away goodies from pinko scientists.

  20. Luke Says:

    Peter D: The government debt is not the private sector’s profit once you account for the changing value of money. If the government (or anyone else) spends dollars inefficiently, the dollar loses value, and everyone in the US loses. There’s no “free lunch”; economic progress doesn’t come from moving numbers on a spreadsheet.

    That’s not to say debt is bad; debt is symmetric to investment which is obviously a good thing (when done efficiently) and is readily incorporated into a fiscally responsible budget. Debt, like alcohol, is a good thing but only when used in moderation!

    Darf: Certainly markets are wonderful at finding optimal allocations of capital, but they can fail in a number of ways. One problem pertinent to fundamental research is that almost no one has a time horizon long enough to invest in things like math, particle physics, etc. which may take the better half of a century to become practical applications, if they ever do. Secondly, there is a whole issue about intellectual property rights and what sort of policy is optimal (or even reasonable) for economic progress. Allowing for monetization of intellectual property is very hard to accomplish without resorting to rent-creating constructs like monopolies (e.g. copyright and patents). I love free markets, but I have a hard time seeing how they could be more efficient than a government (which I admit is inefficient) when it comes to fundamental research.

  21. yonemoto Says:

    “Criticizers of the NSF and academia fail to realize that the cost-benefit ratio from investment in science and education is better than investment in almost anything else. The 21st century economy revolves around scientific innovation and expertise, as does American security, the Republicans’ sacred cow for government funding.”

    patently false. In fact, with the advent of easy money we have seen lots of money being devoted to fewer and fewer good projects. The disease has already hit undergraduate education – we are seeing college-educated bellhops and baristas. At what point does increased funding of research send an incorrect price signal and encourage people who should probably never have gone to grad school waste PI’s time and scientific effort? I think we’re already there, and the cost-benefit ratio has probably already gone well below the negative.

    “One problem pertinent to fundamental research is that almost no one has a time horizon long enough to invest in things like math, particle physics, etc. which may take the better half of a century to become practical applications, if they ever do”

    That is exactly the problem. Science by nature has to be exploratory and often quite speculative. Government, on the other hand has to be transparent and accountable. These two are at dire odds with each other.

    “US government does not need taxes or borrowing to be able to spend, since all spending is changing numbers on a spreadsheet at the Fed. Taxes don’t fund anything. They exist to establish a currency (people have to work to earn US dollars so that they can extinguish their tax liabilities) and to regulate the monetary base to prevent too much demand (too much money chasing too few goods, aka inflation.) Spending is not constrained by taxes!”

    Well, yes. But if you’re okay with using inflation to steal disproportionately from the poor and redistribute to your own pet projects, fine. I would rather be able to sleep at night.

    “But even if it were, cutting education and research is a national suicide.”

    Think harder. What we need is one (or more) large-scale, nonprofit endowment for the basic science that operates independently of taxpayer revenue. HHMI comes to mind, they do very good stuff. Why can’t we have a basic science fund?

  22. Carl Says:

    @Luke,

    What this blog really needs is a good debate about economics!

    That said, in America (unlike many other countries), we control our own currency. We can print as much of it as we want, whenever we want. That means that money is not a constraint on government spending. The constraints on government spending are 1.) the real resources the society has available 2.) the fact that if the government spends too much money or acts too unusually members of other countries will no longer accept our money. So certainly, in light of 2 a certain amount of restraint is prudent in order to be able to conduct international commerce, and in light of 1 we need to be careful not to crowd out private usage of resources or to allocate resources so inefficiently that it leads to a loss of social welfare. All that said, right now the dollar is doing OK internationally, T-bills are doing great, and unemployment is at high level. All of which suggests there’s no reason for the USG to practice austerity in the near term.

  23. yonemoto Says:

    @Carl. Except for the fact that there is a delay between “printing money” and its effect on the economy. The reason why the dollar has been “doing okay” is because the poor and the middle class have been suffering so hard in the last four years that they’ve been paying down debt and defaulting faster than the government can print money. What happens when all the defaults are worked through and people have cleared as much debt as they can – and the “printing presses” keep running money? It’s pretty clear to me we have about another year or two of deflation, and after that you better run for cover.

  24. yonemoto Says:

    Oh, and more evidence for the fact that we’re in a science bubble? All the fraud. If we had sustainable supply of real science students, then there wouldn’t be so much pressure to advance and falsify data, or push too hard on the path the island of security that is tenure. I’m a chemist, and it’s been a huge problem in our field. Some big names have been wrapped up in fraud. Schultz, Hellinga, Paquette, and some lesser names like Cordova, Geoffrey Chang, Sames… Those are the ones we’ve found out about too. I’ve witnessed at least three incidents of what I would characterize as minor fraud in the labs I’ve worked in. I know this is a problem in other fields, too, like neurobiology (used to date a neurobiologist)… It shouldn’t be surprising that we see a “decline effect”.

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer

    or outright lying.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/8269/1/

    So how do you square it up if most of taxpayer funded research is going to fraud. Just because “the government does worse, like fight unjust wars” doesn’t make it okay.

  25. wolfgang Says:

    >> you are arguing that someone else’s cancer research is less valueable than your research.

    it is obvious that *all* research should be cancer research, with some Alzheimer’s added, but no HIV and none of that evolution crap of course.

    furthermore i predict that NSF grant proposals will in the future not be about detecting soccer players but about detecting terrorists and instead modelling the sound of breaking glass, grant proposals will be about the sound of breaking bones in certain torture procedures.

  26. david karapetyan Says:

    If you are running firefox install the firebug plugin and paste the following into the javascript console and either press enter or run while you are on the page at http://republicanwhip.house.gov/YouCut/review_thx.htm:

    function ajaxer() {
    var test = new XMLHttpRequest();
    test.open(‘POST’,’http://www.mattlira.com/Whip/YCprocessCA.asp’,true);
    test.onreadystatechange = function(){console.log(“going”);};
    test.send(‘emailw=&awardw=0844626&awardc=Quantum+computing+is+jibba-jabba.’);
    setTimeout(ajaxer,300);
    }
    ajaxer();

    If you do it properly then you will be submitting a request every 300ms for the award number 0844626 and your review will be “Quantum computing is jibba-jabba”.

  27. wolfgang Says:

    I forgot to mention the obvious:

    We need entrepreneurs and free private innovators and not the bureaucratic liberal ‘academic scientists’.

    In other words we need more D-wave and less Scott A. (all he does is complain about complexity anyways).

  28. wolfgang Says:

    >> you will be submitting a request every 300ms

    i hope you are aware that this kind of Anonymous attack will from now on handled by Joe Lieberman and treated as terrorist attack.
    (reading this kind of comment can get the readers of this blog in some serious trouble already!)

  29. david karapetyan Says:

    Oh noes wolfgang I guess since you noticed the 300ms part you must have read it. I’m afraid that makes you an accomplice. If I go down I’m taking you with me.

    Chill out dude and go change those brown stained pants.

  30. wolfgang Says:

    dude, from now on if you have problems to book a flight in the US you know why. just saying…

  31. rrtucci Says:

    yonemoto said
    “That is exactly the problem. Science by nature has to be exploratory and often quite speculative. Government, on the other hand has to be transparent and accountable. These two are at dire odds with each other.”

    at dire odds? Do you also think that apples are at dire odds with oranges? The NSF is actually fairly “transparent and accountable”, IMHO. It has an EXCELLENT website that allows you to search how much money any project has received, when the money was awarded, who were the lead investigators, their university affiliations, etc. Try to find the same for non-classified defense projects. Good luck.

    For example, I just gave Scott Aaronson a full body scan and found out that the NSF gave him $578,660 on 06/01/2009, for 5 years. There is no place were I can find how much he is getting from ARO, or DARPA, or IARPA, for example

    Whether the method whereby government supports academic/industrial research could be made more efficient, that’s another question.

    In quantum computing, I would say that the NSF is doing a reasonably good job right now in funding experimental quantum computing.

  32. anon Says:

    I liked Steve’s YouTax idea very much. This is a serious matter and we should be serious. I saw that game theorist were successful in convincing politicians about health care. We and NSF should launch a serious publicity campaign, stating the benefits of science and technology. Republicans have started it but it does not need to go where they want, we can turn it on them and change the way government gets and spends money and involve the citizens in the whole process. The idea behind YouCut is a good one, citizens should have a bigger say on how *their* tax money is being spent. Of course the Republicans are abusing it but we should not attack the idea, we should actually support it and force them to extend it to all aspects of taxing and spending. But citizens cannot make the decision without knowing the facts and statistics, so it will force the government to be much more transparent on taxing and spending. Can you really imagine the impact this can have on the way government is run?

  33. Scott Says:

    Beltway Bandito #19:

    As a real-life inside the beltway bureaucrat (not kidding), I can say that the politicos deserve a lot more credit for intelligence than most academics would allow. They know that these cuts will reduce the deficit by a whopping .01%, but it makes great theater: red-blooded patriots take away goodies from pinko scientists.

    Thanks for explaining, Bandito! I always acknowledged two possibilities—either they’re stupid or else they’re cravenly indifferent to the national welfare—and it’s good to hear from a “real-life inside the beltway bureaucrat” which it is.

  34. Peter D Says:

    Luke: “The government debt is not the private sector’s profit once you account for the changing value of money.”

    Yes it is. US government is the only agent able to inject net financial assets (“dollars”) into the economy. No matter how many M1, M2 etc money is outstanding, in the private sector all dollars net to zero: all assets are always matched by liabilities. Thus between the government sector and the non-government sector (which includes the foreign sector), only one can run a surplus. US Govt and domestic private sector can both run surpluses simultaneously only if foreign sector runs an offsetting deficit – but we know that this is not the case, since we have a trade deficit. So, for the domestic private sector as a whole to run a surplus, the US govt must run a deficit, by accounting identity. This has nothing to do with the value of money.
    Anyway, there are other blogs to discuss this. Nobody is saying all spending is good or that there is a free lunch. (spending is simply the necessary condition for private sector’s ability to save.) But cutting education and research because “there is no money” is idiocy.

  35. John Sidles Says:

    Scott’s imagined history: ”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…”

    A substantially different narrative is associated by politicians to that episode. Here is Harry Truman’s account (audio record here):

    [General Marshall] obtained from Congress the stupendous sums that made possible the atomic bomb, well-knowing that failure would be his full responsibility.

    Statesman and soldier, he had courage, fortitude, and vision, and best of all, a rare self-effacement. To him, as much as to any individual, the United States owes its future.

    The natural transposition to the present era is thought-provoking:

    The STEM community obtained from Congress the stupendous sums that made possible the quantum computer, well-knowing that failure would be their full responsibility.

    A lexical search establishes that, at present, the notion of “responsibility”—in Truman’s usage—is not commonly associated to the practice of complexity theory and/or quantum information science by mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.

    Perhaps it should be …

  36. yonemoto Says:

    Bingo, this is exactly what I mean by accountable. NSF may be transparent, but some of the labs it funds might not be so transparent, especially if they are doing it in conjunction with a business startup. Accountability has everything to do with “well what if we’re wrong?” Will those labs give back the money that they spent on (retrospectively) ill-conceived projects? I think not.

    That sort of risk is fundamental to science. The problem is, that ANYONE can justify their work by saying “well it might be useful… someday”. If someone wants to put up their own money on a really risky project that’s fine, and certainly people should. But government money comes “at the tip of the gun” – or perhaps more accurately, against the threat of imprisonment, ask Wesley Snipes. Either through taxation, through future taxation via debt service (which is even worse, because you’re taking money from people who weren’t able to vote on its appropriation), or by inflation, which hurts the poor the hardest. So is it okay to force, and by literally, I mean force, people to accept the risk of wasting resources on science? I, personally am on the side of no here.

  37. yonemoto Says:

    “In quantum computing, I would say that the NSF is doing a reasonably good job right now in funding experimental quantum computing.”

    What If I disagree? Can I get my money back?

  38. Peter D Says:

    yonemoto, I’d much rather let public decide how to redistribute the tax burden than let it decide whether this or that research is useful. While both issues are not trivial, the level of understanding needed for the former is, I think lower than for the later. Both need to be in public domain, I agree, but with different degrees.
    If you believe that on the whole the science done today carries positive ROI, then there is no justification for the government to cut spending, especially since it is the only agent who is capable of sustaining the needed deficits indefinitely.
    If, on the other hand, you believe that science on the whole carries negative ROI, then, pray, why would anybody invest in it?

  39. John Sidles Says:

    Yonemoto, a lexical scan for the phrase “the simple truth” establishes that its relative frequency peaked in the year 1860 … and has steadily declined ever since.

    If we are fortunate, then perhaps this planet’s far-left factions, far-right factions, religious ideologues, and libertarians all will take heed. :)

  40. rrtucci Says:

    yonemoto, I think that the current system by which the US government supports research in academia/industry can be vastly improved. For example, it encourages a post-doc system that is badly broken. It also fails to foster enough ties between academia and industry.

    I think 99.99% of academics don’t care very much about changing the current system which is favorable to them.

    I think that it is highly beneficial for the common good of a nation and its people if their government supports scientific research in some form or other.

    I think that the NSF website should get high marks for transparency in spending, especially if compared with other areas of government. I wish that the rest of the government budget were as easy to access. I think 99.999% of our budget records, especially defense spending, should be available on the internet in gory detail. I wish wikileaks would leak all the USA government budget records, especially those related to defense

  41. Steve Flammia Says:

    I have another idea: YouWealth, where Ordinary Americans from the Heartland don’t choose the marginal tax rate directly, but rather choose what distribution of wealth they would like to see in the US, by quintile. (The appropriate income tax rates get chosen offline by a knowledgeable algorithm.)

  42. Thomas Says:

    This is unbelievable. Does Eric Cantor have any understanding of why America is so successful? or why research needs to be reviewed by experts? If this dimwit succeeds, America is in trouble (and the rest of the world too).

    On the other hand, if academia faces this challenge well, it can be an excellent opportunity to showcase the amazing work that the NSF funds.

    Scott, I sure hope you have a plan for helping make the latter happen.

  43. Peter D Says:

    Eric Cantor would probably think nothing of Cantor’s diagonalization: “What is this BS? Who needs this?” :)

  44. yonemoto Says:

    “I think that it is highly beneficial for the common good of a nation and its people if their government supports scientific research in some form or other.”

    Well that’s your opinion. I see no reason why paying for science should be done by force. The role of government should not be to “do whatever is good”. Why? Because you are then allocating to a small segment of the population the authority to decide what is good and what is not. Today you decide that science is good, tomorrow an archconservative majority decides that gay marriage should be banned and the next day a two-party alliance decides that pornographic scanners and government molestation is “good”.

    If you believe science is good, then you should chip in and help out, or convince people to give of their own free will. Otherwise, you should just shut up and don’t go digging into other people’s wallets.

  45. Scott Says:

    yonemoto: I don’t understand. What’s wrong with government agents taking money from you to pay for science at the barrel of a gun? If you don’t like it, then you’re free to get your own gun with which to defend yourself. Laissez faire, and may the stronger win!

    (Oh, but you think disagreements shouldn’t be resolved through force? In that case, you’re asking for something much more complicated: at a bare minimum, police, a court system, an army, and a welfare system to keep the poor people from revolting. Since the mid-20th century, you’ll also want large investments in education and research to keep from being overtaken by a technologically more sophisticated adversary. And someone will have to pay for all those things. Welcome to reality!)

  46. yonemoto Says:

    why do you even need a welfare system? Isn’t there charity? I mean, I give my money and time, and I don’t even qualify for a tax break (or, to be more specific, if I’d itemized, then it would come out less than the standard deduction).

    I’m just asking for government to have a prescribed role and to not stray from that, so that we know what to expect. is that too much to ask?

    “you’ll also want large investments in education and research to keep from being overtaken by a technologically more sophisticated adversary.”

    Who cares about being overtaken? We don’t have to be number one by any silly aggregate metric created by someone with an agenda. Look. We’ve been throwing exponentially-increasing-faster-than-inflation of money at education since at least the 70s… and we’re still near the bottom of the barrel in terms of “developed” countries. It’s okay, though, saint louis high school system has an olympic-size swimming pool and a 20% dropout rate (I made that figure up).

    Corruption follows money, and I’m almost certain the same is currently true for research, you just won’t get anyone to admit it out of silly nationalistic pride, and because almost all scientists have a stake in it, as is demonstrated by the original blog post.

  47. yonemoto Says:

    so hey, throw money at the sciences you want. With all the fraud and corruption we’ll probably still get overtaken by this fictional ‘adversary’. Given that either way it will happen, I prefer my freedom. Welcome to the real reality. Quit drinking the cool-aid.

  48. John Sidles Says:

    Inspired by yonemoto’s post, I did an informal lexigraphic study of the frequency of the phrase “the simple truth”, relative to the word “truth”, on various forums.

    As might be expected, left-leaning forums (Huffpost), right-leaning forums (RedState) and libertarian forums (The Cato Institute) all have striking fondness for “the simple truth” … and these forums don’t scruple to expound their (conflicting!) truths in essays of near-infinite number (yet rather little variation)

    But there is one striking exception. Although the word “truth” is in common usage on the MathOverflow forum, the phrase “the simple truth” has never been used there.

    Never. Not even once.

    Hmmm … maybe that’s because … truths aren’t simple? Even … or especially mathematical truths?

    Lefties, righties, fundamentalists, and libertarians can learn a useful lesson from MathOverflow.

  49. yonemoto Says:

    I’m not sure what is with the obsession with truth. A simple scan of this page using the search button shows that I haven’t used that word once in any of my posts (until the previous sentence). Quite the opposite, I’m a scientist, so my inclination is towards falsifiability. And, a simple scan of the page will show that there are but 4 instances of fals*, up to and including this post, all of which were penned by myself.

  50. yonemoto Says:

    “If, on the other hand, you believe that science on the whole carries negative ROI, then, pray, why would anybody invest in it?”

    Because my opinion is a minority opinion. And I don’t believe that science as a whole carries negative ROI. I believe investment in science NOW carries a negative ROI.

    Take for example, California, which by initiative process dumped $3B to be spent on stem cells. if you don’t recall, here is the text of that law.

    http://www.cirm.ca.gov/pdf/prop71.pdf

    This was to be spent over the course of 10 years. Which amounts to about $300 million a year. But guess what? Do you think there were enough researcher QUALIFIED to study stem cells in 2004? Let’s say there were 50 qualified researchers in the world, all of whom were willing to relocate to california to do the work. That’s six million dollars a researcher a year. Are you kidding me? I worked in a wasteful lab, and we had a hard time figuring out how to use two million a year, and that’s including 80% overhead that went to things like 24 hour security guards and lavish christmas parties (which, to be fair have been scaled down since).

    I really don’t think there are as many smart people in the world that warrant the spending of as much science spending as we do. It’s so easy to allocate money in a wasteful fashion when it’s not your money to spend. If HHMI cares to spend money on a negative ROI pursuit, that is it’s business. If the government does it, especially in a way that creates a climate that generates incentives to crank out more PhDs of specious quality, making it hard to find “good honest work” among PhDs, postdocs and eventually faculty… Then the situation will only get worse. You see, at any given time there is only so much capacity for society as a whole to innovate and if you keep throwing money at the problem what will happen is that you will begin sending the signal to unqualified people to seek employment as scientists. Several very unintended consequences will result: Talented people who have been stung by the failure to be recognized amidst the mass (or just poor experimental luck) will jump ship. Untalented people will make it through by mass action and pollute the scientific discipline, because they will be forced to advance through deception, fraud, or (most likely) publication of mediocre but derivative work to pad their resume. Journals will begin to proliferate to feed this “market” of low-grade research. Even those who are talented will be forced to compete upwards by proposing ever more and more ludicrous experiments, with shoddy controls and untested techniques – to get notoriety, and ensure a continuing funding stream.

    Now, this is what I believe and I could very well be wrong. However, I look around me and see a lot of things that support my thesis (granted, possibly confirmation bias).

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=science-productivity

    https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0B3uVSPZl-I22ZGY4ZDIwODMtMGM1NC00ZmQxLTgxMjctYjQ1Yzk0ODY1NTkw&authkey=COeyqcUB&hl=en

    http://chronicle.com/article/We-Must-Stop-the-Avalanche-of/65890/

    http://chronicle.com/article/Japans-PhD-Glut-Leaves-Many/7914/

    I’ve noticed that a lot of people posting here and the kind host of this blog are faculty members. Keep in mind that “Most faculty, who depend on the graduate student and postdoctoral workforce, disagree that the system is churning out too many PhDs” (taken from: )

    http://www.the-scientist.com/article/home/24540/

    But seriously, if you’re faculty ask yourself, do you find that the quality of the postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates going down?

  51. Aaron Says:

    Award number submitted, good sir.

  52. raziel Says:

    Are you out of your mind? Do you even know what quantum computing is and means for the world?

  53. Anonymous, but not THAT Anonymous Says:

    Don’t say it…
    It would be wrong to stoop so low…
    “republican taliban”
    Oh, rats…that just slipped out!

  54. meh Says:

    It’s scary to think that we live in a time when the absurdly sarcastic statements can be (and are) the running platform of our dear leaders. The first time I read your post, I was in complete disbelief…

    Please make liberal use of the sarcasm tag as to not confuse your readers.

  55. Job Says:

    It’s a little like picking which charity organizations to close, all scientific endeavors make an honest attempt at moving humanity forward.

    Some people are just so backwards, and you know that they would be the first ones in line to reap the benefits of, or to associate themselves with, any eventual success.

    Can’t we build chambers for these people to enter into and remain in a perpetual state of orgasm and let the rest of us try to figure out what the universe is?

  56. mark Says:

    I just wrote a script to submit every farm/ag research project special emphasis on nebraska….. lol

  57. Keith Says:

    The YouCut form is silly. It’s not looking for things the public wants to fund, but things the public isn’t interested in. And the grant abstracts weren’t intended for a wide public audience, were they? There’s no ability to comment on the NSF as a whole or anything, just “please weed out grants you don’t like”.

    The video was strange too; it’s praising NSF in the beginning and then trying to suggest better distribution of funds. But the overall goal is searching for money to cut, right? But then Cantor seems to bias the results by suggesting grants to cut without presenting both sides of the story.

    On one hand I have to applaud Cantor for framing grants in terms of the number of taxpaying households. On the other hand, I don’t think other areas of governmental spending will be viewed in that light, which makes the frame of reference worse than nothing. Most NSF grants are small in the context of government spending.

    As far as the comments about cancer research or whatever, that’s usually NIH not NSF, right? afaik NIH has a much bigger piece of the pie anyway. I don’t know if they’d consider reallocating funds from NIH to NSF or the reverse.

    As far as comments about corruption/falsification, I haven’t encountered that in comp sci. The closest I can think of are mistakes due to inexperience. Evaluation of research tends to focus a lot on numbers like publications, grant funding, students graduated, etc and that leads to some problems. But what’s the alternative? Subjective interpretation?

    It might be good to re-evaluate the grant process financially. Some projects might not be worth $1m, but might be well worth $200k.

  58. sponson Says:

    Actually, inflation benefits the “poor” and working people more than the rich, as long as wages inflate along with prices. And the majority of economists agree that the “stimulus” spending of 2009 and 2010 was too small, not too large, to really boost the economy. The ratio of “stimulus” to GDP was a miniscule joke compared to what happened during WW2. What happened then? Oh yeah, the hugest economic boom in human history, which lasted for oh, 40 years or so. Gee, let’s have some austerity instead of that terrible nightmare that was the economy of 1946-1982.

  59. William B Says:

    I find it rather horrifying to see cancer research and scientific research (no matter how abstract or impractical) arguin over who is more deserving of funding. Y’all should be working together to cut funding for useless bloated government agencies that don’t actually contribute to the public well-being.

    I think if we valued the arts and sciences (both hard and soft) more, we’d have a lot fewer problems in this world.

    I think it’s disgusting we can spend over $1 Trillion on a couple of wars but schools have to fight with each other over a few 10 million here and there.

  60. Tariq Says:

    This is the worst satire I have ever read. You can pick up almost no sarcasm in it at all. Sorry, but you really need to write better to convey your sarcasm otherwise this is going to be completely misconstrued. The whole time reading it, I was confused until the last section where you have your update and I’m afraid many people won’t make it that far.

  61. yonemoto Says:

    @sponson

    “Actually, inflation benefits the “poor” and working people more than the rich, as long as wages inflate along with prices.”

    That is a pretty huge “as long as”. Meanwhile liberal economic theorists say we need inflation to marginally decrease the real cost of labor and prevent unemployment. You cannot do that and have wages inflate along with prices.

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/13/the-case-for-higher-inflation/

    “I would add, however, that there’s another case for a higher inflation rate — an argument made most forcefully by Akerlof, Dickens, and Perry (pdf). It goes like this: even in the long run, it’s really, really hard to cut nominal wages.”

  62. yonemoto Says:

    Furthermore, it only benefits the poor that are in debt. It hurts the poor that are trying to save to build real capital and invest off of labor done in the past (versus the tenuous hope for labor in the future). The latter are the poor that are trying to really build up social mobility. With 8% inflation over the last few decades it’s pretty clear to me why we have had a widening gap between the haves and the have nots.

    Whether or not you believe inflation hurts the poor, the typical mechanism by which it’s done is to allow banks to borrow money at a low interest rate and turn it around to the general public at a higher one. In other words, bankers (who tend to be pretty rich, I’d say) get first crack at the money and reap the highest margins off of it. So it’s definitely an upward redistribution of funds. Of course, the process is a compounding one, so the rich get exponentially richer at the behest of the government. The other mechanism, which is generally not implemented, is direct “printing of money” or “quantitative easing”. That tends to go to the politically connected. Now, certainly some of that goes to welfare but if you don’t think that it’s going to pass through the hands of the wealthy and political, I’ve got a bridge in New York to sell you.

    A good, four star charity typically spends 80-90% of its funds on direct program expenses

    http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=5492

    Even crappy, two-star charities tend to go around 50%

    http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=10483

    And BINGOs that you’ve heard of probably are around 75% efficient

    http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=6495

    Forgetting the fact that most of this inflation goes to pointless wars, Do you honestly think that half of the money set aside for welfare programs, for example, actually gets used on that? How much do you think goes to administrator and bureaucrat salaries, plus nice federal buildings with lavish interiors and rent-a-cops, where some developer got a sweet deal and overcharged the government for the construction? If the CEO of a charity is overpaid (which admittedly many are), they get dinged on charity navigator. An SES-level government bureaucrat makes six figures, is nearly impossible to fire, and is typically entitled to a pretty sweet, defined pension plan.

  63. NuShrike Says:

    I totally agree! There’s nothing as rewarding and enriching as another trip through a new Dark Ages! The Republicans have already taken us halfway there so let’s get it done properly.

    Cut that useless public education too. It’s just wasted on Americans anyways since they can just listen to the Faux Oracles and sermons instead.

  64. anonymous Says:

    You appear to be using sarcasm as a sophisticated way of being a troll so that it will light a match under others who have the intelligence to decipher your sarcastic code. But, it will only further the cause for those who actually go along with your stated rhetoric.

    Maybe you’re thinking that trolling, or reverse psychology, will change things, motivate people to get off there ass and do something. At the very least, people might feel inclined to call or write to certain people in the political food chain who have the capacity to make real change.

    I’d like to see them try.

  65. Early Cuyler Says:

    While it was the science which had begat my truck-boat-truck. And for that I am much appreciatified.

    But them scientists with their heathern ways are against our lord and heavenly father – what with their ‘evilution’ and such. So bein’ a responsified and well learn’d citisen I must agree that there is no place for giving them tax monies toward the scientific pursuits and whatnot.

    Instead we should furthercate our subsidization of pine cone liquor distilleries.

    Sined,

    E. Cuyler

  66. Early Cuyler Says:

    PS: TAKE THAT HEATHERN SCIENTIST SONS A B&*(*S – I’M WILD! WOO!

  67. Aargau Says:

    @yonemoto Agreed, I was just talking to a hedge fund manager who had the Tahitian bungalow next to us about this. Publicly funded science research is very hard to make money off of. Much better to lock down the research as corporate IP, either to develop or even to bury if (as is often the case) you have an inferior competing technology. Imagine how much money could be made if the Internet were owned by a consortium of companies like Microsoft instead of released to the world for free. You could create a walled garden of content and upsell, upsell, upsell. You can also trickle out innovation yearly as part of marketing campaigns (laundry detergent is a great example) instead of as soon as an advancement is made. Giving away technology and innovation for free will only distribute all those benefits to everyone, it won’t make investors billionaires.

  68. Amber Says:

    Dude – you use the phrase “I exist in a frame of reference wherein ” and you expect people to understand you. Who exactly are these people? Your own graduate students. Other academicians. Certainly not anyone who would use YouCut.

    Try to get out more.

  69. Jeff Says:

    I did research on NSF grants several years ago and again more recently. I was astonished at some of them.

    Award #9320139, “Human Frontier Science Program”
    130,000,000 to FRANCE!

    NSF, DUE, 0919347, “Professional Practice Simulations for Engaging, Educating and Assessing Undergraduate Engineers” (2009, $500,000)

    NSF, Economics Program Grant # SES-0111885, “The Effect of Internet Car Shopping on Prices and Discrimination,” (2001-2004, $184,000)

    NSF, Economics Program Grants # SES-0550508 and SES-0550911, “Incentive Promotions in the US Automotive Industry,” (2006-2009, $151,000)

  70. alpha Says:

    I believe this is a great opportunity to relocate human resources (scientists) outside the USA, preferably to countries more interested in fundamental research.

    I remember an apocryphal story about Faraday, which was visited in his laboratory by a member of the British parliament, to evaluate how much should Faraday’s lab be funded. Faraday showed around the laboratory and explained that he was doing research on this new thing that people didn’t quite know what to do with, called “electricity”. It had some strange properties of producing sparks and making things move…
    The government official asked what could possibly that thing, “electricity”, be used for. Reportedly, Faraday replied something along the lines of “Sir, one day you may tax it!”

    I suggest you explain your research program the same day, “Sir (Madam), one day the government will be able to tax it upon the citizens!”

  71. Jeff Says:

    Here are a few more:

    #9320139 – $125,846,532 to France for Human Frontier Science Program
    #0810837 – $750,000 to the United Nations University for International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change
    #0741355 – $2,100,000 to Germany for International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, ICDP
    #1101950 – $9,000,000 to Sweden for Southern Ocean Research and Operational Icebreaking Support
    #0936346 – $332,000 so 80 students can attend the 2009 – 2011 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing
    #1014407 – $150,000 Plug and Play Characters for 3D Virtual Environments
    #0946124 – $200,000 Incorporating Bidder Budgets in Multi-Item Auctions
    #1046539 – $150,000 Automated and Self-Service Electronics Recycling Kiosk
    #0956747 – $488,242 Making the Internet Safer One Website at a Time

  72. Scott Says:

    Jeff: That’s the best you’ve got? None of the items that you listed sound obviously bad to me. (Maybe they are, but in not one case did I have trouble imagining something with that title that would be worth the cost.)

  73. lulz meister Says:

    Just fyi, we could easily automate the submission of grants here, I’d suggest we simply counter their desires by compiling a list of grants in the hard sciences, especially topics most related to national security or the military, like say crypto, and then submit several notes about each one.

  74. Rick Says:

    The tax cuts just extended to the top one percent of the wealthiest people in this country could fund 5 million of these 150,000 dollar projects. We’re not talking about allocating scarce resources, we’re talking about defunding everything the government does for the benefit of the richest. Having Americans too dumb to realize it is just a plus.

  75. Jason Prado Says:

    I found a grant involving quantum physics and then pointed them to Hitler’s view of such things: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Physics

  76. Jim Says:

    I note that Eric Cantor, founder of the YouCut movement, represents Virginia. I also note that Americans hate “pork”. Perhaps we should do him a favor and target all NSF grants awarded to Virginia’s universities and colleges. Surely he wouldn’t object. Surely the residents of Virginia would’t object. It could become the first anti-science zone in the country.

    Help make Virginia NSF free!

  77. G. R.R. Says:

    Prior to do any cuts, perhaps the congress should learn to quit taking marching orders from anywhere. As it is, it is trivial for somebody from China, or Al Qaeda, or Iran, or Venezuela, or North Korea to suggest a number of cuts that are designed to harm America. Heck, based on the transfer of Magnequench tech to China alone, should indicate that ppl were taking their marching orders from overseas.
    Then add in the wonderful tax cut that said that all money that remained offshore was not taxed, encourage the shift of jobs out of America.
    Now, they are all to happy to take orders via anonymous input. Yeah, that makes a WHOLE lot of sense.

  78. Fred Says:

    I think the idea is solid, but rather than aiming a giant youcut defunder at this or that agency or program, the “target” should be generalized to both the budget and tax rate schedules in their entirety.

    We could freeze the national debt by voting for funding levels as shares of the available tax collection which likewise could be determined by vote.

    They could publish an api, so we could have smartphone apps and game-console channels: iSlash? youPork? wiiBudget?

    :)

  79. -_- Says:

    Actually, the way to go down with your middle finger up would be to fight the mob as hard as possible as they speared you with their pitchforks, screaming justification for your position until your lungs can’t take it anymore. Informing them which part of your body bakes easiest, or participating in their retarded scheme, is pretty much the obvious cowards way out. Work on your logic a little.

  80. Jeff Says:

    Hey, I understood the sarcasm but I submitted your award number anyways. Good luck with teaching politicians about your field!

  81. Scott Says:

    -_-: Wouldn’t the “obvious coward’s way out” be to huddle in the corner and beg for mercy?

    Even Ayn Rand—one of the most vociferous opponents of government-funded science of all time—recognized the strange and twisted logic of my protest method, when, in the climax scene of Atlas Shrugged, she had John Galt patiently explain to his torturers how to fix a broken electrocution device so that they could continue torturing him.

  82. AZ Photo Says:

    Science Schmience

  83. Ryan Cunningham Says:

    1) Download one of those lists of scientists who deny global warming or evolution.
    2) Search the PI and co-PI fields for their names.
    3) Submit those award numbers for Republicans to de-fund.

    The snake is eating its own tail!

  84. Protektor Says:

    I think this is a good idea in theory. It can be used as a testing ground for opening it up to all government spending. So the public can let Washington know in general which areas they are willing to cut and at what level. There maybe areas of the government like research where it isn’t entirely practical, but you have to start somewhere with the idea of cutting something to lower spending. Getting public consensus seems to me to be a reasonable idea. It would at least point Washington in the right direction and where to start looking at cuts.

  85. matt Says:

    Old joke: it’s the French revolution and the mob are guillotining the “intelligentsia”, in this case a priest, a lawyer, and an engineer. They ask: do you want to go face down or face up? The priest says: “I trust in God, I am not afraid to look at death, I will go face up”. The priest lies down, the blade drops and then…stops! “A miracle!” cries the crowd, and they let him go. The lawyer, not wanting to interfere with precedent, also requests to go face up, and again the blade stops! Another miracle and again he is let go. Finally, the engineer asks to go face up so he can see how the mechanism works. As they place him on the guillotine he says: “Oh, I see the problem. The rope is getting jammed on the pulley.”

  86. Another Anonymous Grad Student Says:

    [true story] My grandfather told my mom the other day that research is a waste of time, and that I should be out contributing to the economy. He then spent 20 minutes talking about how awesome his Prius is. I imagine he’s rather fond of his plastic hip as well, and the back surgery that let him walk without crippling pain.

  87. Shay Says:

    When a friend read this post, his first reaction was that the sarcasm would be lost on most readers. I didn’t believe him.

    I can confirm that he was more right than you believed. I read through your post and I didn’t detect any sarcasm. Seriously, I’m not joking here.

  88. Tess Bybee Says:

    Oh wow, I am so glad that it was sarcasm. I actually considered you a moron for a couple of minutes.

  89. Sam Nead Says:

    I just went to the NSF, found my most recent grant using award search, and then submitted the below to YouCut. I encourage you to do the same.

    My name is Dr XXX XXX and and I was the PI for NSF grant XXX-XXXXXX. I would be overjoyed to discuss the need for science funding in general and/or my award in particular. Please feel free to contact me via email.

    Yours sincerely,

    XXX XXX
    University of XXXX

  90. Sam Nead Says:

    Um, in case it isn’t obvious, replace the XXX’s with real data.

  91. Mr L Says:

    “None of the items that you listed sound obviously bad to me. (Maybe they are, but in not one case did I have trouble imagining something with that title that would be worth the cost.)”

    Maybe they are…but you’re not curious enough to find out – and wouldn’t care anyway – because hey, your imagination is all that’s sufficient for something to be worthwhile. In your head, at least. Naturally, the mature response is to shit up the database in limp-wristed protest. Good job, Professor.

    In response to the questions in your blog post:

    1. Exactly which sciences count as “hard”?

    The YouCut page (which you linked, but apparently did not read) helpfully provides a list of sample keywords to use when searching for wasteful spending. Since I know you’re too busy to bother clicking a link, they are: ‘success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc.’

    Gee, those don’t much look like ‘hard science’ topics at all! Certainly not the mathematics, economics, and computer science research you tried to conflate with them. While there’s a debate to be had about the value of funding for research in MMO racism, cloaking such in the mantle of hard science is spectacularly dishonest. I’m sure that was laziness and/or stupidity on your part and not deliberate deception, though. :)

    2. Has there ever been a research project that couldn’t be described in such a way as to sound absurd?

    This question, well, isn’t. Here’s the one YouCut’s actually asking: Are there research projects which are not worth the money spent on them? Initially it seems like you think that the answer is categorically ‘no,’ yet the fact that you need to pretend that ‘hard’ research is under attack suggests you know damn well the answer is ‘yes.’ Perhaps you can clarify.

    3. Would any of those commenters kindly help us understand what’s going on?

    You’re welcome, asshole. Why don’t you do the same and tell us why you’re panicking over theoretical cuts to dumb NSF grants (which of course exist). This bizarre entitlement to grant money and stupid tantrums over *any* cuts whatsoever will only hurt science spending in the long run, as voters get the message (rightly or wrongly) that the actual value of the research isn’t a consideration when awarding grants.

  92. Scott Says:

    Mr L: Thank you for making the case for why I reacted the way I did better than I made it myself!

    Yes, I saw the list of “suggested keywords.” But did you notice that one of the two projects held up for ridicule (about sound modelling) was a computer science project? Hence my question: does CS count as a “hard” science? Where does it stop?

    My worry was precisely that first the social sciences would be cut, and we CS folks wouldn’t speak up because we weren’t social scientists. Then CS and economics would be cut, and the natural scientists wouldn’t speak up because CS and economics weren’t as “hard” as they were, etc. Then biology, chemistry, and physics would be cut, and there’d be no one left to speak up.

    Hence my urge to put my own neck on the tracks at the very beginning of this process.

  93. Aviva Says:

    I am so distressed by things like this. I am so overburdened with work in my little ivory tower right now that I don’t have time for advocacy. I’m not in the line of fire–the utility of my field of applied biology would be obvious to the most red-blooded of patriots. But my field would be nowhere without the advances in statistics, computing, genetics, molecular and cell biology, & chemistry that have defined our century. And Sarah Palin goes “HAHA we’re paying scientists to do FRUIT FLY RESEARCH! LOL OMG.”

    And Scott, I didn’t pick up on your sarcasm either. I don’t agree with the commenter who said going down with your middle finger up is cowardly, but I do think going down fighting is more effective. Sorry to be hyperbolic and refer to stories of oppression, but you were the one who brought up pogroms, so…there’s a memorable story in the Gulag Archipelago, in which secret arrests succeeded because everyone who was arrested was stunned and went quietly. One woman was arrested in a public square, and instead of going quietly she screamed and screamed and clung to a lamppost until the secret police fled from the commotion. What, the author asked, would have happened if everyone had responded that way?

  94. PHil100a Says:

    You, sir, are an ignoramus. How about starting with military systems that we don’t need, use, want, etc.?!

    Just ONE of those programs, alone, would fund ALL NSF grants for decades! You’re asking non-scientists, who don’t know anything about science, to suggest cuts in the sciences.

    Also, most people don’t know the downstream impact of science research that seems on the surface to be irrelevant, or frivolous.

    You are contributing to making Americans more phobic about science and research. And you know what? That’s fine, because we are now foint to see – after years of touting ourselves so smart because we had 5 decades of accidental wealth that resulted from Europe and Asia being crushed in WWII. That’s over. What we are going to get is a lot of Indian and Asian bosses telling Americans what to do, because THEY are not skimping on hard R&D. So point to your garbage post to your grandkids, when they’re working a low paid job – if they can find one!

    The ignorance and hubris of some people continues to amaze me. Just who do you think you are? You, sire, are – again – an ignoramus!

  95. yonemoto Says:

    @Aargau

    You are an idiot. what you are saying is like saying for an operating system to be free and open source it has to be written by the government.

  96. yonemoto Says:

    “What we are going to get is a lot of Indian and Asian bosses telling Americans what to do, because THEY are not skimping on hard R&D”

    You really shouldn’t worry about that. For one, I haven’t met a chinese postdoc who didn’t fake data.

  97. PHil100a Says:

    Further, you help feed into the anti-science frenzy that envelops this ignorant nation, where most nutcase hard-right Evangelicals believe in evolution. Welcome to that club, Scott, because whether you like it or not, your not-well-thought-out idea feeds into the anti-science meme. So, blast away, but just remember you are now a candidate to be interviewed by Hannity, on Fox – they will love you there.

    And, further, it’s not so difficult to make a further case that you are also helping to foment other kinds of ignorance. Maybe you can stroll down to Jerry Falwell’s church tomorrow and make a speech?

  98. PHil100a Says:

    Yonemoto: “For one, I haven’t met a chinese postdoc who didn’t fake data”

    And your universe of experience is? Funny that some solid R&D is coming out of Asia, and other places. Looks like you’ve joined Scott’s “let’s help make Americans dumber” club. Congratulations!

  99. yonemoto Says:

    No, you really should read my posts in detail and you will understand why my observation makes sense. India and China have been PhD mills of late and the effect of doing that is that the PhDs are of lower quality. The capacity to produce valuable PhDs out of those nations (for now) has been past saturated, so the probablity of finding a dud (who has to compensate) is high. I think this bodes poorly for India and China’s research programmes. The repercussions will be hard to weed out, especially since those countries, culturally, place more value on status and face. Expunging bad actors in the higher levels of academic and non-academic research will be difficult.

  100. yonemoto Says:

    “let’s help make America dumber”. The irony is that you don’t understand that access to easy money is exactly what has made American PhDs dumber.

  101. Shaun Says:

    Wonderful piece! Just what I needed this morning. Now to go back to the lab and blow outrageous taxpayer money on invisible laser beams. This should be fun to watch develop…

  102. walt Says:

    I didn’t realize you were joking either, Scott, and generally I’m much more likely to think someone is joking when they’re actually being serious, than vice versa.

  103. Elo Says:

    Your point is that we should invest in research that has no immediately apparent short-term benefit, but statistically does have historically demonstrable long-term benefits (breakthroughs). But your smarmy alarmist attitude is quite off-putting.

    The angle that you are missing, which I think is the source of the legislation is the strong social current of “smaller government and less government meddling” that has arisen as a backlash to the recession and revelation of disgusting excess of leadership in the financial sector.

    The point of the legislation from my perspective is that government should do less, and citizens (in the form of private industry and a free market), such as yourself, should do more. You probably live in a world where government funding makes much of what you care about possible, but there are real dangers to that Government Dole world.

    So, I get your point. I agree that research is invaluable. But I think the real point of the legislation is not that what you do is unimportant, but rather that there is another way to do it that doesn’t involve the Government being everyone’s Daddy.

  104. GoatsGruff Says:

    Almost immediately, the thoughtful well-reasoned responses are drowned out by digital belligerence andSomehow this thread was hijacked and reborn as a less-than-subtly disguised red v. blue tax debate. rehearsed talking points. In the end, no consensus is reached, no solution is found, and nobody has stopped yelling for long enough to even consider a dissenting opinion, much less allow themselves to be swayed in one direction or the other. In the meantime the problem exacerbates. Congratulations, you’ve just witnessed the American political process.

    There were only two enlightening comments:

    # Beltway Bandito Says:
    Comment #19 December 17th, 2010 at 1:42 am

    “As a real-life inside the beltway bureaucrat (not kidding), I can say that the politicos deserve a lot more credit for intelligence than most academics would allow. They know that these cuts will reduce the deficit by a whopping .01%, but it makes great theater: red-blooded patriots take away goodies from pinko scientists.”

    This guy knows what’s up, and is the only one to address the root of the problem.

    (2) yonemoto:

    “Talented people who have been stung by the failure to be recognized amidst the mass (or just poor experimental luck) will jump ship. ”

    Sounds like somebody’s still sore.

    Note: This is not aimed at the original post which was clear, interesting, and persuasive.

  105. Hopefully Anonymous Says:

    Jeff,
    I rarely have emotional reactions in these internet debates, but it made me sad that it would move your animal spirits to comment that it was noteworthy wasteful in a nation of 300 million for taxpayers to spend $332,000 to send 80 students (about $4K per student?) to a triannual “celebration of women in computing” (if it’s annual, that drops it down to about $1K per student).

    “#0936346 – $332,000 so 80 students can attend the 2009 – 2011 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing”

  106. Peter Flynn Says:

    The worrying thing about all this is that Life is increasingly coming to resemble the dystopian future satirically described in Larry Niven’s _Fallen Angels_, where an ignorant and bought-and-paid-for Congress, hoodwinked by agents of political correctness, has dragged the US into an anti-science mindset, where critical faculty is preserved only by underground scientists (and by SF fans, for the plot).

  107. Hopefully Anonymous Says:

    “Even Ayn Rand—one of the most vociferous opponents of government-funded science of all time—recognized the strange and twisted logic of my protest method, when, in the climax scene of Atlas Shrugged, she had John Galt patiently explain to his torturers how to fix a broken electrocution device so that they could continue torturing him.”

    Good lord. When I’m at the brink of information theoretic death, I’ll curse the butterfly whose flaps caused you to spend time learning this much about Ayn Rand’s body of work.

  108. matt Says:

    Let me make one criticism of science as currently funded. I have heard (I do not know if this is true) that back in the day Bell Labs used to have an unwritten policy that either you did world-class basic scientific research or you did something that directly benefited the company in a tangible way, but that you could not sort of score 50% in each category and call it good enough. I think this is a good policy since I have seen way too much “pretty damn good but not world class research” (a category that includes 90% of the output of any institution, whether it be MIT, CMU, Stanford, or whatever) that doesn’t really lead to that much and that also doesn’t really lead to any tangible benefit. This needs to be improved. If it’s going to be basic research it better be amazing.

  109. Scott Says:

    matt: The problem with your argument is that I don’t know a single example of a breakthrough that came out of nowhere: “it takes a village to raise a Perelman.” You can’t get Shakespeare without dozens of lesser playwrights for him to learn from and compete with; you can’t get a Mozart without a royal court full of Salieris; you can’t get [insert your favorite TCS breakthrough here] without the 10 previous STOC/FOCS papers that identified the problem, established its importance, closed off various dead ends, etc. Or do you disagree?

  110. matt Says:

    Yes, I do disagree. You said yourself at one point that most of your papers aren’t worth writing up since hardly anyone will read them (this was as part of a discussion of why interactive proofs were better). So, you could have kept, say, the top 10-25% of what you wrote and it would have had the same real impact (though it wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well at getting a CAREER grant to have had only 1/10th as many papers, even if the average quality was much higher). I don’t blame you, of course, and I admit that my own results could easily be pruned at least that much too with little loss, as could just about everyone’s. But, if we could just concentrate on the best stuff, things would advance a lot faster. If we could just admit “hey, this result isn’t much good, and I really didn’t succeed in doing what I wanted….” on the cases when that was in fact true, that would be nice.

  111. matt Says:

    I also disagree on the notion of what work it would take to “raise a Perelman”. If we did more truly beneficial work to applied topics, on those cases that we realized that a more basic piece of research was stuck, this might in fact lead to more great basic breakthroughs. Information theory, for example, has its roots in applied topics, as does game theory, etc…

  112. Commutative Says:

    Which of these statements is meaningless and which sounds more “good science-y” to a person who knows nothing about magnetism or lasers?
    This research looks for magnetic monopoles in frustrated magnets.
    This research examines whether confused magnets can be used to improve medical lasers.

    Also, folks like yonemoto seem to forget that NSF grants are not easily given. The review process is, in all fields with which I am familiar, a highly competitive process. Plus, even if you do, by some freak accident, get a grant, if your research is meaningless, it will most likely fail to get published in a reputable journal which, provided you don’t have tenure, won’t exactly do wonders for your career prospects.

    Champions of free-market science/paying back your grant if your idea doesn’t work need only look as far as the drug industry to see how disastrous that would be. Successful drug companies are successful because they buy smaller companies who have gotten drugs through several stages of testing. Punishing scientists who happen to have chosen an incorrect (and often modifiable!) hypothesis would stifle innovation.

  113. Yisong Says:

    One flaw in this argument of solely focusing on basic research (as I construe your concept of basic research to be) is the assumption that the direction of impact & influence flows in only one direction (basic to applied).

    The current major CS industrial research labs (e.g., at Yahoo, Microsoft) are all very happy to have high impact researchers that split their focus 50/50. Maybe these companies learned something from the failures of Bell Labs.

  114. Scott Says:

    Maybe these companies learned something from the failures of Bell Labs.

    If the old Bell Labs was characterized by “failures,” then every scientist should be lucky enough to fail one billionth as badly.

  115. yonemoto Says:

    Commutative: I’m not at all a champion of paying back your grant. But I guess tl; dr. Shorter yonemoto is “Elo”.

    Goats: I’m not “still sore”. I’m currently working for a nobel-prize winning scientist. I love it. Unlike most managers, he actually does go into the lab and do lab work from time to time. He’s also got a great octagenerian sense of humor. Of course, I got my job through craigslist, and it happens to be a position that was supposed to go to a BA/BS biologist. Hey, you know what, as a grad student, I went to a pretty good research institute and my contribution to my field was I actually put error bars (n=5) in a field where that wasn’t done. And I paid for that because my work wasn’t “stupendous” enough for me to do a first-class postdoc at a different first-class research institute.

    But yeah, I’ve seen a ton of shit. Was pretty close to a serious incident of fraud (that led to a Science and a PNAS retraction), knew a cadre of three grad students in a different lab who simultaneously left because of fraud (that hasn’t result in a retraction yet), knew yet another lab that denied first authorship to a grad student because of one experiment that “didn’t agree” with how the experiment was supposed to go. There was an incident where another grad student in my lab was reporting an artefact (which didn’t affect the final thesis of the paper), and so I did a cleaner version of the experiment, handed him the data, and told him that he could have it, I didn’t need credit, but that it was his moral obligation to correct the literature. You think he did anything about it? And in my lab, a couple of postdocs reported an effect that was published. A grad student followed up on it, I remember telling her that I thought she’d be chasing ghosts. She got a paper running tons and tons of replicates on the experiment last summer, and about four or five months ago, she realized that everything she’d seen was because some proteins were sticking to the sides of wells. There hasn’t been a retraction yet. When I moved to DC, for a while I dated an old friend of mine, now a cognitive neuroscientist, who just before we were dating, got into a tiff with her boss – he had pressured her to remove from their manuscript a footnote explaining that the experimental design for analyzing the data had changed after they had run the experiment (the initial hypothesis turned out to be false, so this was a way of salvaging the results).

    So what? Either I’m suffering from some severe confirmation bias, or maybe I just have my ear to the ground and am friendly enough that people will talk to me. I don’t know.

  116. yonemoto Says:

    *by “pretty close to” I mean, I was at the (other lab’s) poker table when the people peripherally associated with the incident were discussing whether or not it should be disclosed or not. The decision at the time was no, but eventually one of the guys at the table moved to a different country and decided he would do an experiment to expose the fraud – the retraction came a week before his paper hit the presses (and 5 years after the original paper)

  117. Drain Bead Says:

    On selecting grants to submit: I searched on “virginia military”, and found 8 grants listing [Cantor's home state of] VA, plus they have the word “military” in them.

    The NSF is apparently spending its scarce resources on projects for the much-better-funded US Military.

    What other Cantorrific terms can I search on?

  118. Hopefully Anonymous Says:

    Yonemoto,
    Your discussion of basic science fraud, which is interesting, is separable from your causal theory of too much money going into basic science, and (from my recollection of your earlier comments in this thread) your more libertarian view of optimized govt. administration.

    I agree that there is a shortage of the threshhold smart and competent, not just in basic science research. I also agree that the better solutions may be more complex than “make more Ph.D.’s” and “give more money to basic science research”.

    But I feel like you’re taking a wicked problem and embracing an equally overreduced solution, reactively.

  119. LAG Says:

    Ok, let’s see if your super-brain can follow this little bit of sarcasm.

    Little people (who pay the bill): Why do I have to pay the bill?
    You, explaining: Shut up.
    Little people (who pay the bill): Ok, got that, but do I have to fund everything?
    You, explaining: Shut UP.
    Little people (who pay the bill): But can’t we at least prioritize a few of these. I mean, I only have so much money.
    You, explaining: SHUT UP!
    Little people (who pay the bill): I thought this was a democracy. I may not have a super-brain like you, but that isn’t a requirement, near as I can tell, to offer an opinion on how the country ought to spend the revenues collected from the citizens. Am I wrong? Or don’t you believe in the democratic process?
    You, explaining: SHUPUPSHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP!!!!

  120. Scott Says:

    LAG: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate, except for one thing! It’s not actually “little people (who pay the bill)” who are behind YouCut; rather, it’s powerful Republican congressmen trying to divert attention from the spending cuts that could actually make a difference (for example, military pork-barrel projects, many of which individually are much larger than the whole NSF budget).

    I’m grateful to live in a country most of whose citizens do support public investment in science (at least according to opinion polls). By contrast, I think the current Republicans in Congress deserve nothing but contempt. And yes, I know these people were voted into office, but they also wield a level of power wildly out of proportion to the actual expressed public support for their policies—owing to well-known problems with the way our democracy is organized that are a topic for another post.

  121. Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

    One reason for academics to try to do without external support as much as possible is that such support produces the suspicion that they’re trimming their results to the agenda of the supporters. (This is not limited to one side.)

    One possible way to fight that is to preferentially support fields where negative results are mentioned more often. That might at least produce some peer pressure to report those negative results.

    As for the alternate history of the Manhattan Project, it’s not a total straw man. “Atom Boy” by Robert Benchley had some similar comments (even despite the absence of large-scale centralized support).

    BTW, we are always one potential election away from the NSF being run by Young-Earth Creationists/Deep Ecologists/etc.

  122. mivadar Says:

    I agree with some things yonemoto, though by far not everything.
    But, I think we need to distinguish two things here … one is possibly reforming the way science is funded, the other is possibly saving some tax money.

    For the first, I think this method (applying to the general public to pick off specific research projects) is simply useless – if it’s done, it has to be done structurally, and with a general debate.

    For the second, this is just cheap. The NSF is, frankly, peanuts, and criticizing it in this way is beyond low hanging fruit.
    I mean, the NSF of all things – even compared to the NIH and NASA their budget is farcical given the “rest of science” they are supposed to cover; and compared to the federal budget it barely registers.

    I love the idea of the public searching for money spent that they consider wasteful – can we please do that with the DoD, Homeland Security, Treasury, etc., in stead of the comparative peanuts that the NSF is getting? I would like them to have the same searchable database for every cent given out.

    In FY2009, the total federal money spent on research was $68 billion.
    Out of this, $12.3bn was defense research, about $33.5bn was bio, $21.5bn other science/tech (with about $700m uncategorized).
    Out of this the NSF budget was $6.5bn (less than 1/10th).

    The total budget was $3518bn.
    The total federal money spent on research being slightly under 2%, the NSF budget under 0.2%.
    Good place to start cutting.

  123. Scott Says:

    Joseph: The NSF already has been in the hands of a suspected young-earth creationist (Bush Jr). But it survived that, I think in large part because the system of peer review panels for awarding grants protects the actual content of the grants from too much political interference. That, of course, is precisely what Congressman Smith is proposing to change.

  124. kws Says:

    Organized crime probably steals more from the Medicare/Medicaid system each year than what the NSF receives for funding, so why not address the gigantic sources of waste and fraud (the entitlement system) than the microscopic?

  125. ibcbet Says:

    I love the idea of the public searching for money spent that they consider wasteful – can we please do that with the DoD, Homeland Security, Treasury, etc., in stead of the comparative peanuts that the NSF is getting? I would like them to have the same searchable database for every cent given out.

  126. MuonDude Says:

    Scott:
    I was reading this post with my friend Frank (he’s sitting next to me enjoying his cigar, “Smoke, Good!”) and got to thinking what an innovative idea they have, let those who know absolutely nothing determine what scientific research should be funded. We’ll soon pull ahead of rest of the world! Then Frank pointed out to me all those angry villagers coming up the hill with torches and pitchforks. So I’d write more but we gotta hightail it outta here…

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