I wish I were kidding. I really, really, do. I recognize that the way political parties supposedly work is to offer different solutions to problems – not “good” or “bad” solutions: they are all patriotic, and none of them are evil. They’re just different.
However, when it comes to things like this, I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating: Congressman Adrian Smith is launching a “citizen review” of “wasteful” NSF projects.
The way incoming Republican Whip Eric Cantor’s web site explains the idea is:
We are launching an experiment – the first YouCut Citizen Review of a government agency. Together, we will identify wasteful spending that should be cut and begin to hold agencies accountable for how they are spending your money.
First, we will take a look at the National Science Foundation (NSF) – Congress created the NSF in 1950 to promote the progress of science. For this purpose, NSF makes more than 10,000 new grant awards annually, many of these grants fund worthy research in the hard sciences. Recently, however NSF has funded some more questionable projects – $750,000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players and $1.2 million to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game industry. Help us identify grants that are wasteful or that you don’t think are a good use of taxpayer dollars.
(And, of course, Rep. Smith’s introductory video makes reference to those terrible “university academics” who receive this money. But the whole issue of why learning, academia, and universities are becoming more and more vilified in the political arena is a discussion for another day.)
At the bottom of the web site, there’s a form in which you can enter an NSF award number and comment on how that award is wasting your money. Anyone with an email address can do this. The thing is, while I do believe that transparency is a good thing, I don’t think that the average citizen is going to give any NSF grants the full consideration that they would need to devote to them before decreeing the grant a “waste” or not. They are more likely to make snap judgments based on descriptions like “$750,000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players.”
What do I find so objectionable and anti-science about this?
First and foremost, this is a gross oversimplification. Scientific findings can have applications across many different fields that may or may not have anything to do with the original study or proposal. So, it’s entirely possible that the $750k grant had nothing to do with soccer, but the study turned out to have applications to analyzing soccer-player dynamics. And it’s entirely possible that a materials science group was interested in mechanical models of acoustic waves, but that research was more likely to be funded if done in partnership with a Hollywood effects studio than not, so they got $1.2 million to investigate the sounds of breaking objects. But even if the grants were explicitly for the study of soccer players or improved smashing noises in movies, they still might be worth doing because those findings might have applications to something that matters in our everyday lives, cures disease, enables new technologies, or opens up some other field of endeavor. In fact, every NSF grant proposal must include a substantial section on the “broader impacts” of the research in question, and many proposals get rejected for suggesting research that is too narrowly focused. Rep. Smith is asking people with a few minutes to kill to evaluate what NSF committees with many more qualifications have already evaluated and judged sufficiently broad-ranging.
Here’s an example of research that sounds crazy but has useful applications: a group of collaborators in Canada published a paper on the mathematical modeling of a zombie outbreak. (The paper is available online here, and is a hilarious read for anyone familiar with scientific writing!) Your first thought might be that this is a terrible waste of money, effort, and university resources; or perhaps that the journal ought to be discredited for publishing such a paper; or perhaps you think that this was a total failure of the peer-review process and that all scientists have lost their sense of perspective. But here’s the thing: the zombie modeling research actually has real-world applications. From the paper’s discussion section:
The key difference between the models presented here and other models of infectious disease is that the dead can come back to life. Clearly, this is an unlikely scenario if taken literally, but possible real-life applications may include allegiance to political parties, or diseases with a dormant infection.
This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first mathematical analysis of an outbreak of zombie infection. While the scenarios considered are obviously not realistic, it is nevertheless instructive to develop mathematical models for an unusual outbreak. This demonstrates the flexibility of mathematical modelling and shows how modelling can respond to a wide variety of challenges in ‘biology’.
[Munz, Hudea, Imad, and Smith, "When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection," Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress, 2009]
So, yes: these scientists recognize that they worked on a project that is, on the face of it, somewhat silly. The important thing, though, is that these researchers got together, thought it would be interesting to apply their methods to a problem, and got results that have multidisciplinary impacts.
Another great example is the study of synchronicity. Scientists in the fields of mathematics, biology, physics, engineering, and computer graphics have been interested in synchronicity among many discrete entities and how it could arise without central control, just from a few simple rules that each entity follows. An example is “flocking” behavior, exhibited by groups of birds or fish. A computer graphics expert named Craig Reynolds published a paper in 1987 explaining how three simple rules could explain how birds flock together. One of the dramatic consequences of this research was better computer modeling of large groups of animals, which, of course, found its way straight into the special effects industry. Here’s a famous example that uses computer simulation of flocking behaviors to make more realistic animated animals:
So, by Rep. Smith’s logic, if any synchronicity research received NSF funding, he could put it up on the Republican Whip’s web site and say, “university academics got hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to develop computer graphics of a wildebeest herd for a Disney movie.” Shameful, right? The thing is, this application is one aspect of the research. There are many more, ranging from behavioral biology to architecture to sociology to crystallography. Yes, applications include better computer renderings of schools of fish in “Finding Nemo.” Yes, applications include being able to explain how humans at a concert can all clap in time with one another. But this research also gives us better bridges, self-assembling chemical structures, and more capable robotics. You don’t have to take my word for it – here’s a fantastic TED video of Cornell Prof. Steve Strogatz, a gifted communicator, talking about the study of synchronicity and its many applications.
Second, people submitting NSF awards to the Republicans through this program are going to end up nominating as “wasteful” awards that have to do with policies they disagree with. One of the tricky things about science is that scientists don’t get to choose what results they get; sometimes they get results that they – or politicians – don’t like. But that doesn’t mean that those areas of study aren’t deserving of scientific attention!
Anyone with an email address can submit an NSF award to this Republican web site. It would take about 30 seconds for a lobbying corporation to get a Hotmail or Gmail address that wouldn’t be traced back to the company and submit all kinds of grants that have the potential to damage them politically. How many fast food chains do you think will nominate NSF-sponsored studies relevant for obesity prevention? How many oil and gas companies will nominate research into solar cell technologies or further confirmation of climate change? How many religious nutcases will nominate research that impacts evolutionary biology? How many companies will use this as a means to try to shut down research that might make their products obsolete or less desirable?
Humans have a natural tendency to try to ignore problems unless they pose a clear and present danger. This is probably a survival instinct: focus on what’s in front of you, solve the problems you can, and whatever goes on over there is someone else’s issue. However, at some point, we do have to recognize when an issue goes from “not our problem” to “we need to solve this.” Climate change is a perfect example: among the scientific community, there is no doubt that it is happening (though there may be disagreements about the details). But for a politician, it would be unwise to say, “yes, climate change is real; no, I don’t think we should do anything about it.” A statement like that would run the risk of sending voters the message, “I don’t care about you.” Much easier (and safer at the polls) to say, “no, it’s not happening at all.” As such, these politicians will latch on to any tiny weakness in the scientific work, so that they don’t have to commit to a course of action. So how many NSF-sponsored projects into determining what the impacts of climate change might or might not be get submitted to this web site, not because we shouldn’t find out about those impacts, but because some people don’t want to know that a problem exists?
On a related note, one thing that NSF does is fund some of our programs to identify near-Earth asteroids. These are the kinds of asteroids that we have to worry about – the kind that could crash into our planet and destroy things in a cataclysmic way. What are the chances that that could happen? Any astronomer will tell you that they are, well, astronomically tiny. Still, there is value in the search – because if an asteroid is on its way to impact the Earth, we had better know about it! If we ignore the problem, then there’s a large chance that nothing happens but a small chance that we all die. If we address it, then we can try to mitigate the issue. But how many ordinary citizens will look at these programs and think, “I don’t even know what asteroids are. Are they real? What is this? My tax dollars are paying for this. Why should they?”
Third, NSF-funded research pays for graduate students! We cost money – not just our meager stipends, but also our university tuition, university overhead, and mandatory health insurance for those of us who work in labs. We also need capable computers and precise equipment to do our research. And we need to present our findings to the scientific community at research conferences. Even if our current project happens to be on better modeling of the sound things make when they break, and even if the obvious applications are in the movie and gaming industries, that’s not what we’re going to spend our whole career on. We’re learning advanced skills – skills this country desperately needs to develop. We’re pushing the boundaries in advanced fields – fields that are relevant to a wide range of applications.
What if the grad student modeling the sounds of breaking objects goes on to develop software that can analyze a terrorist’s tape of demands to determine what other activities are going on in his cave, and lets us pinpoint him and stop him? (Yeah, that’s right, I just called House Republicans soft on defense because of this NSF-skewering project!) What if the grad student modeling soccer players is talking with a friend who is doing medical research, and finds out that his soccer-player algorithms could help his friend develop a cure for cancer?
Even if our research project has limited applications, it still has the function of giving us grad students the skills, tools, and abilities that we need to become fully-functional scientists and engineers in our own right. Today, I work on algorithms to control reconfigurable modular spacecraft. But if I never touch another spacecraft-related problem again in my life, I have still learned a lot about computer programming, mathematical modeling, control strategies, physics, critical thinking, project management, systems engineering, technical paper-writing, and communication. Whether or not I keep working on spacecraft, all those things will continue to be useful. Maybe someday I will even become a professor and start making little baby scientists of my very own. And regardless of what research projects they work on, no matter how silly it seems, there is value in simply teaching them to be scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and thinkers.
For science to work properly, scientists need to be able to proceed with free and open inquiries. They need to be able to exercise their wits and apply their knowledge to all sorts of problems. Science is about looking at something in the world, watching it, and thinking, “if I put my mind to it, I can figure that out!“ It doesn’t matter if the phenomenon in question is how soccer players move on the field, why things make the sounds they do when they break, why fish school together, or even how hypothetical zombies spread their infection. It also doesn’t matter if the research has immediate applications to movies, video games, sports, or anything else. We can explain the phenomena of the universe. Working to expand the scope of our knowledge enriches us, little by little, for as long as the human race exists.
That is a philosophy that the House Republican leadership opposes with this NSF review site. If your congressperson has anything to do with it, I urge you to write them about it.