The Sciences

USA Today on "Citizen Googling" and NSF

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyDec 6, 2010 5:23 PM

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Dan Vergano at USA Today has done a piece about congressman Adrian Smith's attempt--which we're now calling "citizen Googling" here at "The Intersection"--to involve members of the public in determining which peer-reviewed NSF grants are a "waste." Vergano sets the endeavor in the context of misguided attacks on government research that go all the way back to Sen. William Proxmire's infamous "Golden Fleece" awards. As Vergano notes, it pretty much always seems that when some politician slams a government scientific grant, the research actually turns out to be quite important and the pol is simply misinterpreting its meaning. (Hmmm, I wonder why that is?) Sure enough, that already appears to be the case with the two grants picked out by Smith. As Vergano reports:

So, as you might expect, when we asked the National Science Foundation about the two grants that Smith mentioned, we learned a little more about them. For example, the soccer study turns out to be computer scientists studying how remotely connected teams form to conduct "nanoscience, environmental engineering, earthquake engineering, chemical sciences, media research and tobacco research." And the "breaking things" study turns out to be acoustics experts "pursuing fundamental advances in computational methods while solving several particularly challenging sound rendering problems," so that the U.S. military, among others, can create more realistic combat simulators for troops. "These aren't about soccer research," says the NSF's Maria Zacharias. "All of these projects go through our very rigorous peer-review process," she adds, part of what made the NSF the only one of 26 federal agencies to receive a "green" rating from the Bush administration in its initial rating of government management practices.

I really like one upshot of Vergano's piece: If scientists don't want their grants attacked in silly ways, it will help if they are able to get the word out about what they're actually doing and why it really does matter. In other words, as grants come under fire, there will be a premium on good communication about your research. I want to address another point that came up in the comments when I first posted about this. I'm all for cutting back on wasteful government spending. I'm also in favor, incidentally, of getting the government more of the revenue it deserves--by, say, getting rid of massive fossil fuel industry tax subsidies that only hurt our economy in the long run, by discouraging clean energy investment. But the fact is, if you seriously want to balance the budget, you don't go looking to NSF--which, if it gets what it asks for in 2011, will receive just over $ 7 billion for that year. Total federal budget in 2010? $3.552 trillion. Total deficit? $ 1.171 trillion. There are a thousand billions in a trillion. So NSF's total 2011 budget request is less than 1 % of last year's deficit. And if NSF's total budget is barely noticeable in the broad context of federal spending, the individual grants being singled out for attack are ridiculously inconsequential in that context. Consider a million dollar grant, for instance. There are a million millions in a trillion. So cutting such a grant would be addressing...less than one millionth of the deficit. So to summarize: a) The criticisms of individual NSF studies always seems to misunderstand the research and its importance. And moreover: b) even if these studies were defunded (hell, even if NSF was entirely defunded!), that wouldn't appreciably affect the budget or the deficit. So what on Earth could the purpose of the exercise possibly be? I'll leave that to readers to sort out.

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