Saturday, October 18, 2014

A cyclical phenomenon: GOP Congressmen perform "oversight" on National Science Foundation grants

Like clockwork, like a plague of locusts, every so often legislators decide to ridicule NSF research grants in the name of congressional oversight.  (The most notorious instance was Senator William Proxmire's golden fleece awards.)  I guess it makes them look fiscally responsible to their constituents.  To me, a former behavioral scientist, and a former NSF and NIH  grantee, it makes them look like uneducated fools. 

Several years ago, a congressman in my Texas district took off after a couple of NSF grants exposing them to public ridicule.  I called his office and got routed to a staffer who handled his science policy.  That person knew nothing (nothing!) about NSF or its peer review process and by repeating the congressmen's talking points, exposed herself as just a big a fool as the congressman.

Well, folks, here we go again.  This piece from summarizes the latest ruckus between congressmen and NSF.  Snippets follow.

... the agency doesn't just give money away to anyone who asks. Proposals have to survive a rigorous review process that includes close scrutiny by a panel of top scientists in the relevant field. Competition is fierce: Of the 49,000 proposals submitted in 2013, only a fifth were ultimately funded. So as far as most scientists are concerned, an NSF grant is about the highest mark of scientific legitimacy a research project can get.
Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) apparently disagrees. Over the last 18 months, Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has launched an aggressive campaign against what he sees as misguided money management at NSF that fritters funds away on frivolous research. Research on ridiculous things like, you know, climate change.
... the 47 grants [tagged so far by Smith's staff] represent only a tiny fraction of the NSF's total operation; together, they amount to about $26 million, or 0.37 percent of NSF's budget. Which raises the questions of why Smith would (a) throw himself into an investigation of spending that, all things considered, is barely a drop in the federal bucket and (b) pick these specific projects to focus on. A spokesperson from Smith's committee—who provided a statement on behalf of Smith's office (the same statement quoted by Science above)—did not respond to these questions.

Social and behavioral sciences are a favorite target when the congressional witch hunters arise in their cyclical exhumation.

Many of the studies at issue involve social sciences (a study of caste systems in Ethiopia, for example, and one about rural sanitation in India) that fall outside the core areas of engineering, mathematics, computer science, and biology that Smith, in a press release this spring, singled out as "the primary drivers of our economic future."
But some of the biggest-ticket items up for public dissection focus on climate change. They include a $3 million grant awarded in 2008 to study how federal agencies can better communicate climate science to the public and a $5.6 million award to a Columbia University team to carry out public education work on the impacts of climate change at the poles. You know, totally frivolous questions that have nothing to do with the "national interest" on things like rising sea levels, epic releases of methane, US military engagement in the Arctic, new areas for offshore oil drilling, and 35,000 stranded walruses. Definitely not stuff you need to worry about, or have our top scientists investigate and explain.

The part of all this that should concern all of us, scientist and lay public alike, is the attack on the rigorous peer review process used to winnow out the best research applications to receive NSF funding.

The letters over the past few months between Smith and NSF director France Córdova, an astrophysicist and former president of Purdue University, are a great new entry in the annals of government scientists explaining Science 101 to Republican Congressmen.

The full, scary story is covered by Science magazine linked here.

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