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Condoms, Malt Liquor, and Good Research

The latest attacks on science funding in the Recovery Act are all mockery, no substance

green sign with ARRA logo and beaker SOURCE: SP Two conservative senators have teamed up in a fleece war on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, targeting 100 of its projects, many of them scientific in nature, as examples of wasteful spending.

Of all the nasty attacks on science that occur in the political sphere, there’s one variety of cheap shot that deserves special recognition. By this I mean dismissive swipes at individual federally funded research projects that are made to seem stupid, silly, or a waste of money, even though public funds are actually going to an important and legitimate cause of scientific inquiry.

The tradition goes back to Wisconsin Democratic Senator William Proxmire, who distributed “Golden Fleece” awards to identify government profligacy, and frequently targeted scientific projects or grants for ridicule. Today, Proxmire has an heir in Senator John McCain (R-AZ), notorious for carelessly dismissing grizzly bear research on the 2008 campaign trail, even as his running mate Sarah Palin did the same for fruit fly studies.

And now, in a new twist on the old theme, McCain has teamed up with Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma in a fleece war on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, targeting 100 of its projects, many of them scientific in nature, as examples of wasteful spending.

When Congress passed the economic stimulus bill of early 2009, $21 billion was appropriated for science funding, including research, equipment, development, and construction. This was just a small portion of the $787 billion total stimulus outlay, and of the science funds themselves, by far the largest slice went to the National Institutes of Health ($10.4 billion). Other major gains went to the Department of Energy Office of Science ($1.6 billion), the National Science Foundation ($3 billion), and NASA ($1 billion).

The result was a profusion of science and research capacity development, much of it generating jobs as well as innovations. Consider, for example, a nearly $1 million NIH stimulus grant to Johns Hopkins University for a study on treatment options for drug abuse following inpatient care (such as counseling and follow-up care), which brought with it 86 jobs to support the large project. In other words, in this instance, medical knowledge and economic recovery will advance simultaneously.

And that’s just one of many such stories helpfully compiled on the ScienceWorksForUs website. It is important to remember that whenever major research projects get funded, the dollars tend to create a variety of university-based support jobs and graduate student livelihoods to carry out all aspects of the work. They also enable the retention of existing jobs that may otherwise have gone away, and perhaps also the hiring of professors and researchers.

In the face of all of this, what do McCain and Coburn do in their latest report? They nitpick, ignore the big picture of science funding in the stimulus, and focus in on a few individual grants, which they attempt to trivialize. Thus, for instance, their report mocks a project funded by the National Science Foundation to the tune of $1.57 million: Teams of researchers from Penn State University and other universities are traveling to Patagonia to look for plant fossils, in an area where major dinosaur finds have occurred before. “Move over Indiana Jones!” write Coburn and McCain. The innuendo seems to be that studying plants is for wusses, and can hardly be considered stimulative of the economy. But of course, there is much to be learned about past climates from such a project, and especially about what happened to plants during the extinction of the dinosaurs—and any $1.57 million grant will certainly create jobs to support the research project.

It’s important to recognize that, in the rush to get stimulus funds out the door quickly, agencies like the National Science Foundation unleashed the majority of their dollars on already filed grants. This certainly meant funding a lot of pure science, like the study described above, with stimulus dollars. However, awardees are required by NSF to report how many jobs they created or preserved based on each grant. And again, with almost any major scientific research project, such positions would tend to be created—although with many research projects only now beginning, the number of jobs created may not be known yet in each case.

McCain and Coburn also target various medical studies: For instance, a malt liquor and marijuana study in Buffalo, New York, funded to the tune of $389,357. Coburn and McCain turn this entirely legitimate public health research inquiry into a joke, simply because the substances may have particular lifestyles associated with them. But so what? Young adults abuse these substances, and it is quite legitimate to study the associated effects. This is particularly the case for malt liquor, as the grant reports that it has received little research attention. Understanding early alcohol abuse patterns, as well as the deaths and injuries that result from drug abuse among young men, are clear public health benefits. Moreover, as with any major medical study, it’s inevitable that jobs will be created to support the work.

Something similar goes for another NIH-funded study on sexual behaviors of young women in college, determining whether they are more likely to “hook up” after drinking—once again, public health research that is greeted by McCain and Coburn only with a sneer. And on it goes: They dismiss a public health study on why young males don’t like wearing condoms, along with research on the “Icelandic Arctic Environment in the Viking Age,” the “Learning Patterns of Honeybees,” and so on.

In the end, McCain and Coburn can certainly enjoy their yucks at the expense of science. But there’s virtually no substance to their complaints. In each instance, closer investigation reveals that the research is legitimate science. Moreover, McCain and Coburn never show that a particular grant fails to stimulate the economy, either—they just assume as much, even though scientific grants are known to create jobs.

In the end, while it is certainly worth exposing and rooting out government waste, you need something far stronger than uninformed swipes to get the job done.

Chris Mooney is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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