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In Defense of the National Science Foundation

A Recent Criticism of Our Nation’s Science Funding Is Remarkably Unscientific

NSF Under the Microscope SOURCE: Under the Microscope, available here Sen. Coburn's new report thinks science is silly, but its methodology is surprisingly unscientific.

A new report produced by the staff of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) rails against the National Science Foundation while illustrating a profound misunderstanding of how science is done and how the agency operates. “Under the Microscope” claims $1.2 billion in waste, fraud, duplication, and mismanagement, and $1.7 billion in unspent funds. Sen. Coburn’s review, however, is unscientific and deeply misleading, ignoring 95 percent of the foundation’s activity to pick on “silly grants” and the moral failings of its managers.

The report undercuts its own conclusions again and again, demanding more accountability while cutting support for accountants, asking that scientists propose experiments that are more difficult to justify while demanding they fill out more paperwork, and calling for higher-quality research while interfering in the review process for political reasons. Before cutting a federal agency’s budget, we should understand the agency’s mission, operations, and outcomes. Sen. Coburn’s report makes it clear that despite his protestations, he has little idea how science works, how the NSF supports science, or how scientific knowledge strengthens America.

The report’s central claim that the NSF failed to recover $1.7 billion in unspent grant funds is patently incorrect and is based on a simple misunderstanding of federal statutes, according to NSF officials. In fact, the $1.7 billion figure represents the pot of money obligated for multiyear grants, and the figure drops as research teams draw down their accounts over the course of their projects. “It’s being used for exactly the purpose for which it was intended,” explained an NSF budget official to ScienceInsider.

Beyond the blatant misreading of federal statutes, “Under the Microscope” drives home two main points: First, the NSF is poorly administered; second, the activities that it funds are silly. Coburn has a clear vision for the NSF: It is an agency that should solely fund “transformational research.” Quoting from “Under the Microscope,” which quotes from an NSF memo, transformative research is research that promises extraordinary outcomes, such as:

Revolutionizing entire disciplines; creating entirely new fields; or disrupting accepted theories and perspectives –in other words, those endeavors which have the potential to change the way we address challenges in science, engineering, and innovation.  Supporting more transformative research is of critical importance in the fast paced, science and technology-intensive world of the 21st century.

The problem is that “transformative research” can only be identified in retrospect. We often don’t know where the next breakthrough will come from, or which scientific theories will prove critical in the long run. The closest we can come to supporting transformative research is looking for what Thomas Kuhn called potentially “paradigm-shifting science.”

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn noted that scientists work within paradigms—broad sets of ideas, concepts, and theories that define what a valid scientific question is and how it can be answered. As scientists fill out various parts of a paradigm, they accumulate inconsistencies, observations that don’t fit their paradigm. Mostly, these inconsistencies are ignored, but at some point they reach a critical mass and a bright mind develops a new theory, which incorporates the inconsistencies.

For example, an Aristotelian astronomer saw his job as observing the stars and accurately describing their motion through epicycles, minor patterns of rotation. As centuries of observation accumulated, the initially elegant and logical geocentric model of the universe required too many arbitrary epicycles to make it work. Copernicus realized that the Earth travels around the sun, Galileo popularized it, and Newton proved it with his theory of gravity, resulting in a paradigm shift in astronomy that led to calculus, modern mechanics, and a host of other scientific discoveries.

Unfortunately for Sen. Coburn’s recommendations, paradigm-shifting science cannot be produced on demand. Until the point at which the new paradigm is confirmed, its theories often sound like sheer madness: matter as both a particle and a wave, invisible organisms causing plagues, mankind descended from apes, the continents moving, the Earth orbiting the sun; at one point all of these accepted scientific truths were the most insane heresies. People were—and in some cases still are—burnt at the stake for proselyting these ideas. Furthermore, new paradigms are often strictly less useful for solving practical problems. For about a century after Copernicus, until the mathematics of elliptical orbits were worked out, the geocentric model of the universe was far better at predicting where stars would be in the night sky.

Trying to get a committee composed of top experts in their field to go against their paradigms and fund “transformative research” is psychologically impractical. Yet the NSF can’t go around handing out money to every crank and charlatan who promises to revolutionize science. Peer review committees serve as gatekeepers, evaluating proposals on the strength of the proposed plan of research, the expertise of the investigators, and likelihood of achieving its aims.

Generally, the more ambitious and transformative a scientific theory is, the less likely it is to pan out. The compromise institutional science has made between working on hard problems in the accepted paradigm and creating new paradigms is giving researchers enough time, money, and intellectual freedom to discover something really novel.

Sen. Coburn’s solution to a lack of “transformative research” is more oversight. He complains that nearly 50 percent of NSF grant progress and final reports are turned in late, and 10 percent are never turned in at all, but doesn’t discuss how scientific publications already serve to mark progress. Scientists work to advance the sum total of human knowledge—and their own careers, by publishing articles in scientific journals, not filling out reports that will never see the light of day. Rather than further burdening researchers with government red tape, the NSF should be better equipped to keep abreast of the latest discoveries in the literature.

Of course, all this close oversight of the NSF, according to Sen. Coburn’s staff, is to be done on a smaller budget, since the agency spends too much on office space and airfare. It’s unclear how NSF employees are supposed to conduct site visits without plane tickets; perhaps they can use some of that CIA research on clairvoyance and telepathy.

Likewise, the inspector general’s office is criticized for spending too much of its time investigating porn viewing among senior management as opposed to actual fraud. Of course, the fact that NSF employees view porn during working hours is worthy of three pages in the report. As a very angry Steve Silberman says in his take on Sen. Coburn’s report, “They’re [scientists are] making fools of American taxpayers while indulging their liberal — indeed, sinful — excesses.”

Sin and excess is a big theme of the report, including tales of porn surfing at work and lurid photos of Jell-O wrestling at the NSF-funded McMurdo Antarctic Station (what happens in Antarctica stays in Antarctica). The excess goes so far as to include an evening of pizza and bowling for undergraduates at an NSF-funded summer research internship. Responsible use of taxpayer funds is important, but let’s keep a sense of perspective here. McMurdo is an isolated research station; you can’t just go out on the town, and some kind of recreation is necessary to keep the crews’ morale up. We might also want to begin asking hard questions about the softball leagues and ice cream socials afforded to congressional interns.

Somehow, I find it hard to work up much outrage about fraud in the NSF, given that Minerals Management Service employees were caught up in a massive sex/drugs/corruption scandal with oil company representatives, or that 25-year-old stoners defrauded the Department of Defense on a $300 million arms contract, or that contractors in Afghanistan funneled military money to the Taliban, or pretty much everything connected with the Great Recession of 2008.

But “They’re more corrupt than me” is no defense, and scientists should hold themselves to a higher standard than arms dealers, oil prospectors, and bankers. While Sen. Coburn’s report makes a case for better accounting standards to ensure grant monies are spent, it also relies heavily on the work of the NSF’s own internal inspector general for its examples of fraud, and in several cases, the employees in question were fired for their transgression. It appears that the NSF is already capable of detecting and dealing with corruption, and that extra investigators might be more efficiently used in other areas of government.

But corruption and government oversight is not my forte. Let’s return to the science policy side of the report. Sen. Coburn’s “staff spent several years reviewing hundreds of NSF research awards” and picked the 50 or so of the least transformative, most ridiculous ones to share with the public. Thirty-six of these grants are in the social sciences, five are in education/public outreach, five are in biology, and one is in mechanical engineering.

These numbers are in no way representative of what the NSF does, as science policy expert Dan Sarewitz[1] put it in his response, “The entire social and behavior science budget at NSF ($252 million) amounts to all of 3.6% of the total NSF budget, 0.3% of the civilian R&D budget, and 0.006% of the federal budget. Attacking social science is good conservative politics, but it has nothing to do with serious budget policy.” The NSF approves tens of thousands of proposals each year, and rejects countless more.

Why does this report overwhelmingly focus on such a small section of the NSF, to the exclusion of 96.4 percent of its activity? If I were to hazard a guess, the reason why social science projects predominate is not that the GOP dislikes the social sciences more than climate science or evolutionary biology, as Steve Silberman argues, but that it is very hard for congressional staffers to evaluate the worth of proposals like “Nodulin Intrinsic Proteins at the Plant-microbe Symbiotic Interface: Multifunctional Roles in Metabolite and Water Transport in Nitrogen Fixation and Stress Responses,” or “The ISM of Luminous Infrared Galaxies: Tracing Gas Properties, Dynamics and Starburst/AGN Activity,” to pick two grants at random from this week’s approvals. As the selection of projects in this report demonstrates, scientific peer review is done by experts because lay people can’t tell the difference between good and bad science just by examining grant proposals.

The social science work that the NSF does is far from frivolous. One study that Sen. Coburn calls out is one that examines the reasons why Turkish women wear veils. According to the study, rather than submission to Islamic law, many middle-class Turks wear the veil as an act of “fashion rebellion” against an authoritarian secular regime. Given current volatility in the Middle East, and Turkey’s traditional role as bridge between East and West, it seems useful to gain information about how radicalized 50 percent of the Turkish population is.

Studies on video games and virtual worlds are a particular bugbear of Sen. Coburn; however, video games are now a major entertainment industry on par with television and movies, with more than $10 billion in sales. Internet fundraising and activism has the potential to be a transformative force in politics, both at home and abroad. Children are effectively growing up in virtual worlds, and if Google is truly making us stupid, or if rumors spread through Twitter can bring down dictatorships, then it is important for us to understand these phenomena.

Another science policy issue that the report touches on is duplication, or the notion that NSF-funded activities are being done elsewhere. According to the report, research that might cure disease should be done in the NIH, while energy research is the sole province of the DOE, and training for scientists should be moved into the Department of Education. This attitude, however, is far too reductionist. Science cannot simply be divided into categories of basic and applied, or NSF and agency-mission based. Research into solid-state physics can probe both the fundamental properties of matter and improve the efficiency of solar panels. Studies on cell division might lead to a cure for cancer but will certainly advance biological knowledge as well.

Science: The Endless Frontier,” the NSF’s informal constitution, makes explicit that the justification for basic research as conducted by the NSF is that it will eventually improve the security, prosperity, and health of the United States and its citizens. NSF proposals are ranked both on their intellectual merit and their broader social impacts. Recommending that the NSF no longer fund research on issues like health, energy, and jobs would separate the scientific community from problems of public concern, and likely lead to more of what Sen. Coburn derides as “silly science.”

Duplication of effort is an inherent problem for distributed organizations like the NSF. Scientists, working independently, tend to find the same problems interesting. Similarly, the need to continually present results and “publish or perish” leads to some amount of obvious and trivial science. But duplication of effort is strength rather than a weakness. Diverse approaches increase the chance that a solution to a given scientific question will be found. Rather than big pork-barrel research centers, the NSF funds scientists working in every state, creating a flexible and adaptive community of scientists.

At the cutting edge of science, there is no clear divide between research and education. Scientists learn by doing; the core of graduate training is planning, conducting, and writing up your own original research. The NSF’s education and outreach efforts are targeted not toward the general public but those students with exceptional potential who may go on to become award-winning scientists. For students, there is no substitute for imparting the excitement and importance of science like directly interacting with leading scientists, a mission better fitting the NSF than the Department of Education.

Of course, the decentralized style of the NSF is not the only way for the government to fund science. One proposed solution toward reducing duplication is a stronger development of a national innovation system, which would support all aspects of science and technology, from primary education to product development, and parcel scientists out based on identified national needs. A more centralized, activist role for the federal government in science, however, is an uncharacteristic policy for a small government conservative like Sen. Coburn to advocate.

Sen. Coburn wants a leaner NSF that is better at advancing American interests. This is an admirable goal for anybody who believes we need to innovate to maintain future economic competitiveness, military dominance, and even ecological survival, but the report is crippled by internal contradictions and blatant misrepresentations. As he calls for eliminating the NSF’s education and outreach efforts, Sen. Coburn wants a strong scientific enterprise without paying for the necessary human capital. Similarly, he approves of the role science plays in protecting us from natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes, while ignoring the many disasters—like  financial collapses, wars and conflicts, and anthropogenic climate change—whose human origins,might benefit from scientific investigation.

Eliminating the Social, Behavioral, and Economics Directorate, as Sen. Coburn recommends, would dramatically reduce research into the human dimensions of scientific and technological issues.

The place of science in Sen. Coburn’s world is not that of an active participant that helps businessmen, politicians, and activists solve problems, but a miraculous force that constantly transforms society out of its existing problems. Science may appear smooth and monolithic from a distance, but at its bottom-most level, it is a very human endeavor, run by ordinary people who make mistakes, who have bad ideas, and who prefer working on their experiments to dealing with red tape.

More than malfeasance in the NSF, or a failure to fund the right kind of science, this report reveals that Sen. Coburn believes he can score points with voters and the conservative punditocracy by attacking a pillar of American scientific excellence on any grounds he can gin up.

Science policy and government oversight deserve better.

Michael Burnam-Fink is a PhD student with the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.


[1] Disclosure time: Dan Sarewitz is my department chair. And while my graduate research fellowship was not accepted, I plan to reapply in the fall.

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