Here they go again. Republicans in the United States House of Representatives are working on a bill called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014. In their typical Orwellian fashion, the name of the proposed legislation gives the impression it supports innovation when, in truth, it would suppress it – dramatically.
To understand the problem with the proposed legislation, you first need some background on the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF was established by Congress in 1950 to support and expand basic scientific research in the United States. It has been a spectacular success. Today the NSF has an annual budget of seven billion dollars, and it provides funding to approximately 10,000 of the 40,000 proposals it receives each year. Proposals to the NSF are first vetted using a peer-review process in which other experts in the proposed field of study evaluate the planned research. Final funding decisions are made by the National Science Board, a panel of 25 science and technology experts.
Most of the proposals to the NSF come from university faculty members who use the money to buy equipment and supplies for their research. The grant monies also fund the education and training of our young scientists and engineers while they are in graduate school. My Ph.D. research at the University of Pennsylvania was funded through an NSF grant.
The stated goal of the Republican sponsors of the FIRST Act is to have Congress “weed out projects whose cost can’t be justified or whose sociological purpose is not apparent” before they can be funded by NSF. Here again, like the name of the proposed legislation, this sounds reasonable at first (pun intended). So let me explain how having Congress micromanage funding decisions would thwart our scientific progress.
I understand that for many people, the inherent value of basic scientific research can be hard to grasp on an intuitive level due to its esoteric nature and sometimes decades-long lag time between the initial experimentation and the final outcome. But we should absolutely not be making our decisions regarding research funding on the intuition of non-experts. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that investment in basic research leads to tremendous social and economic benefits. For example, as I have previously written here in Common Science, government-funded scientific research led to the development of the internet, 3D printing, artificial limbs, cancer treatments, Wi-Fi, and most of the other technological advances that characterize our modern society. Clearly, the process by which we fund science research is not broken.
Even if it did not bring about the type of advances I listed above, government-sponsored research is how we train our young scientists and engineers who go out into industry and help to make existing companies more efficient and profitable, as well as create companies like Cree and United Therapeutics.
Engaging in basic scientific research also often results in unexpected and beneficial outcomes which no one, particularly a non-expert like a Congressman, could have foreseen at the outset. Let me use a historical example to illustrate the point. A scientist has just learned how to do some chemistry to add fluorine atoms into other molecules and wants a research grant to explore the area further. One could imagine a Congressman saying something along the lines of “I’m sure that may be interesting to you, but we have serious problems to solve and jobs to create and we just can’t fund these academic larks.” Whereas a panel of experts is likely to think fluoridating molecules opens a host of new, but as yet unknown, avenues which may bring great benefits. If we follow the imaginary advice of the Congressman, we get nothing. If we follow the advice of the expert panel, we get Teflon.
I think I can safely assume that most of my readers have never read an NSF proposal. They are long, incredibly detailed, and can not be evaluated in a meaningful way unless the reader is intimately familiar with the subject matter, as well as previous and ongoing research in the area. Consider for a moment the absurdity of having a group of congressmen rather than a group of oncologists evaluating a research proposal for advanced chemotherapy.
Historically, when politicians do wade too far into the scientific arena, things tend not to go well. In his response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in 2009, Governor Bobby Jindal decided to attack proposed funding for the United States Geological Service’s volcano monitoring program. He was quickly embarrassed to learn that this equipment, which is also used to monitor earthquakes, had saved thousands of lives, including U.S. military personnel in the Philippines who were warned in advance of an eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Furthermore, investing in basic geologic research provides all sorts of knowledge and technology to extractive industries such as mining and fracking, both sources of campaign contributions for Mr. Jindal.
Another Republican politician, whose name I cannot recall, attacked a research project focused on determining why you can’t tickle yourself. To the politician, this research project was so inherently ridiculous that it required no further explanation to illustrate what a silly and wasteful endeavor it was. The response from the researcher to this critique was eloquent and compelling. She explained that studies such as hers were intended to address the huge gaps that we have in our understanding of the human nervous system. She further explained that solving mysteries such as why we can’t tickle ourselves provides the foundation for developing therapies for degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases. Doesn’t sound silly anymore, does it?
I could provide many more examples, but I trust that the two examples above illustrate the folly of having Congressional committees make judgments on science projects. I should note that I am not implying that Democratic politicians would be better at evaluating NSF proposals than Republicans; they just have the good sense not to try.
Let me close by providing my speculations on why many current Republicans have adopted such vehemently anti-science positions. To a large extent, I believe that they are driven by trying to avoid the inconvenient truth of climate change and its implications. As I have written before, not believing that an atmosphere with more carbon dioxide will capture added heat is the scientific equivalent of not believing that your microwave oven will heat your coffee. Further, believing that this extra heat will not impact our climate is simply nonsense and completely at odds with easily observed phenomena like melting polar ice caps. However, facing up to the reality of climate change is also at odds with the core Republican belief that that unbridled capitalism is always and inherently good. Better to claim that climate change is an elaborate hoax and that scientists are part of a liberal cabal trying to crush your freedoms than to admit that we need to reconsider an economy based on limitless consumption.
I am also concerned that the War on Science is expanding into a more generalized War on Education. The first several drafts of this column contained a lengthy diatribe expounding on this thought. Then it occurred to me that I could be more efficient and concise in making my point by simply including this excerpt from the State of Texas Republican Party platform.
We oppose the teaching of . . . critical thinking skills and similar programs that . . . have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
Fortunately, the FIRST act will never make it through the Senate, nor, if it did, would President Obama sign it into law. However, the fact that a large cohort of our elected representatives thinks that it is a good idea just makes me sad.
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