Of the many and varied things going wrong in Washington today, the frontal assault on science is one of the most alarming. Sequestration will be a blip compared to the setback that could result if Congress makes science--the peer-reviewed, community-checked, fact-based realm of science--all about politics.
The chair of the U.S. House of Representatives' science committee is floating a bill that would eliminate peer review at the National Science Foundation, essentially replacing it with a Congressional stamp of approval. President Obama has signaled he opposes this, and the bill's future is unclear right now. But Republican lawmakers are nothing if not tenacious.
Science has been suffocating in a toxic political atmosphere for years, with national leaders outwardly denying climate change is happening, celebrities pushing dangerous anti-vaccine (and anti-science) views on a frightened and malleable public, and conservatives angling to teach creationism using taxpayer dollars. The proposed 2014 federal budget doesn't help, with major cuts in planetary research and high-energy physics just two of the problems. But this latest salvo could be one of the most damaging anti-science campaigns yet.
That's because on its face, it sounds innocuous. Wise, even. It's called the "High Quality Research Act."
The draft legislation, as originally reported by ScienceInsider, would force the National Science Foundation to adopt three criteria in judging every grant proposal. Quoting ScienceInsider's copy of the draft, NSF-funded research must be:
Right now, NSF grants--which are highly competitive--are decided by panels of expert scientists, who rank them on their intellectual merit and their broader impacts on society. "Questions and problems of utmost importance" is a key phrase here. It would be hard to argue that research on duck penises is of utmost importance, for instance. But it does have scientific merit, and incredible impacts on the research community and society at large.
Did you know ducks are one of a very small number of species that commit rape? Female ducks have evolved clockwise spiraling vaginas to avoid this forced copulation, and in turn, male ducks have evolved counterclockwise corkscrew penises. Scientist Patricia Brennan's study, also the target of GOP ridicule, examined how the presence of other male ducks affects genital morphology. She and her colleagues found competition is a driving force behind these traits.
"Generating new knowledge of what factors affect genital morphology in ducks, one of the few vertebrate species other than humans that form pair bonds and exhibit violent sexual coercion, may have significant applied uses in the future, but we must conduct the basic research first," Brennan writes in an excellent Slate essay defending her research.
Basically, the bill is the latest effort by Republicans to attack basic scientific research, in the physical as well as the social sciences. From Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research to John McCain questioning the value of astronomy outreach, this game has a long history. The NSF bill's author is Rep. Lamar Smith, who authored the much-loathed and eventually-killed SOPA bill to "stop online piracy." He sent a letter last week to acting NSF director Cora Marrett, questioning a swath of scientific studies conducted with NSF dollars.
"I have concerns regarding some grants approved by the Foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF's 'intellectual merit' guideline," he wrote. He proceeded to call out studies titled "Picturing Animals in National Geographic," "Comparative Histories of Scientific Conservation: Nature, Science, and Society in Patagonian and Amazonian South America," "The International Criminal Court and the Pursuit of Justice," and a few others.
The names of these studies are now flash points, joining the ranks of others previously held up as exemplars of your money wasted on privileged intellectuals. But the leaders of these projects were awarded grants, in each case a few hundred thousand dollars, because a committee of their peers and competitors judged them worthy and important for scientific research. No offense to Rep. Smith, but he's not exactly qualified to judge the nature of ecological protection in South America, or the conservation benefit of National Geographic's nature photography. Neither am I--the committee of peers that made those awards is the rightful decider.
President Obama, speaking to the National Academy of Sciences on its 150th anniversary this week, signaled he won't stand for this political change.
"In order for us to maintain our edge, we've got to protect our rigorous peer review system," he told the gathering Monday. "One of the things that I've tried to do over these last four years and will continue to do over the next four years is to make sure that we are promoting the integrity of our scientific process; not just in the physical and life sciences, but also in fields like psychology and anthropology and economics and political science -- all of which are sciences because scholars develop and test hypotheses and subject them to peer review."
That Obama felt the need to define science highlights the real problem with Smith's legislation, and the problem with the Republicans' attack on science in general: They aim to undermine the very meaning of it. They're not just judging the results. They're judging the validity of even asking the question. Of even wanting to look for an answer. And that is the scariest thing of all.
Think your government is anti science? The conservative party majority here in Canada recently voted against a bill that would reaffirm that science and facts should be the basis for law and legislation.
Congress is just a reflection of the people that vote congressmen into office. The real question is, "US voters, why are you so ignorant?"
You could have also titled this article "Dear PopSci: Why Are You So Anti-Science?"
I weep for the US and Canada. It's everyone's fault though: government is dominated by businessmen/lawyers. Scientists/engineers have to become more involved in government, and people have to vote for them.
Science and facts should not be the sole basis for law and legislation, they are not absolute, but must have a great consideration for law making. Science even in strictest form can make mistakes and facts can miss something making it invalid.
Bad science and cooked facts happens, we are just humans after all.
So the real issue is that the scientific community might be more accountable now?
They won't have a strangle hold on what paradigms get funding?
That a small interest group won't be able to dictate who can join their little group of people who qualify for research grants?
The only people worried about this are ones who know their ideas aren't robust enough to stand up to challenge.
Peer review is a sad and sorry broken system.
From what I'm reading in this story, it seems to me that those people proposing this change aren't anti-science, they're looking to focus our public dollars on the items that will make the most difference for all of us. There are an infinite number of questions that can be asked of science, but not an infinite number of resources in the world to pay people to just study them. I, for one, would be happy to see all science funding go towards the MOST useful items for everyone in our country. Who gets to decide that is another question altogether.
If I had to choose between paying people to study duck penises and find potential earth-endangering asteroids, I'd choose the latter in a heartbeat.
I am also very disappointed by the labeling going on in this story that purports to support science. Labeling people as anti-science just because they have a different moral opinion about who should be paying for what doesn't make anyone anti-science. But it does mean that the author is using non-scientific, emotionally inflammatory name-calling to try and make some person or group look bad. Seems to me that leaves science behind for mudslinging, which is definitely more political than scientific.
The real fact is that science itself cannot be the only component of government. Science is great, and can tell us many things. But governing in all forms is basically just a selection of a moral direction. The author's morals clearly indicate that she believes the government should fund more science. That is a moral choice she is free to make, not a scientific conclusion. For example, science tells us there are stars in the sky at night. Moral choices then have to be made by governments whether or not to force all their people to pay for research into those stars. Government is at its very core an attempt to control groups of people in one way or another. And when it attempts to do so by granting freedoms, you have the whole sticky mess of dealing with everybody's differing morals rather than just the morals of 1 dictator or a small group of control-wielding individuals.
Just because some people don't want to force everyone to pay for certain "lesser" science studies to be done at the point of a gun (no, seriously, try not paying your taxes for a while and see if they don't come get you with guns drawn) and under threat of imprisonment, doesn't make them evil or anti-science. It just means they have a different viewpoint about who should pay for it and how. So get over it and get off your high horse, because right now you just look like a spoiled 7-year old crying, "me, me, me! I want, I want, I want!"
So lets make funding science a voluntary thing.
Then only those who contributed will be allowed to benefit.
Isn't that what everybody wants?
@ marcoreid. I agree that the best science should be funded, however I do not believe that politicians should be deciding who gets funded, unless they have some kind of research experience or science credentials. I believe that is what this article is trying to comment on. Sure any congressman/woman or senator can gauge what are important questions to ask, however they likely cannot determine which group has the best methods to study or answer the question at hand. Someone without extensive science knowledge can also likely not not determine applications of a specific study or field. Scientists are the most qualified people to review science. This is how many fields operate. No one pays a mechanic for legal advice and no one pays a lawyer to repair a car.
I am also curious if people commenting on this have research experience. As a molecular biology researcher I know there are many problems with the way biology approaches publication and grant reviews, however many of these problems stem from the overall lack of funding in this day and age (people become more cut throat and shady when money is tight). I find i difficult to believe that people not heavily involved in science would know if the "peer review [system] is a sad and sorry broken system".
First explain why government should be in the business of funding "science" (especially the kind YOU think they should fund, Rebecca). The invention of the light bulb wasn't funded by government, neither was the personal computer, the automobile, the airplane, the rocket, television, radio, penicillin, the Internet (ARPAnet was only one of the many predecessor technologies of the internet). As cool as rockets, space exploration and robots are, does NASA's contribution to the betterment of mankind rival, say, penicillin, personal computers, or the Internet?
And in case you forgot, "the government" is us and their "funding" is OUR MONEY--mine and yours from taxing what we worked hard to earn. Frankly, I don't want my money spent on funding stupid science, especially the wacky studies dreamed up by sociologists, which is what Rep. Lamar Smith's legislation is designed to prevent. If your peers are all nutcases who have spent way too long in the incestuousness environment of academia, then chances are their "review" is as nutty as they are.
"The only people worried about this are ones who know their ideas aren't robust enough to stand up to challenge."
Challenge? By who? Congress?! That's laughable. Congress can't even challenge their bookeepers, let alone scientists.
No, congress can't challenge, they can only endorse, and that's a big difference. If the only science that can get funding is the science that congress endorses, the quest for truth will be sullied by political agendas and religious agendas.
Congress isn't reviewing science. They are reviewing what should get taxpayer funding. If you can't make a case why your research is important enough to get funding, you don't deserve it. One reason they are after government funding is because they couldn't get any of the billions and billions of private funding out there because everyone else thought the project was a waste. They literally asked this scientist what the point in researching duck wieners was and all she could come up with was it "may have significant applied uses in the future"? Like what? When the scientist researching something can't even think of a single use for it, let alone something decidedly in the public interest, it's time to cut them off.
I've seen nothing out of the U.S. House recently that lends me the belief that they are qualified to make that decision.
This says it be just cool that whomever is paying for the prime moving legislation behind technology manufacturing-especially those nice porky government procurement fasttracked areas get funding whether the base science is sound to a bunch of self serving people with no practical knowledge at all.
So who is Hitler in our freight train scenario, and which magical objects from religious mythology are we searching the planet for to make him immortal?
We voted the Village Idiots into the Council Chamber, the people who think that if they just keep shouting louder than everyone else that makes them 'Right'.
And to the People who snark about how Private Business solves all problems...not every modern development we have today came out of a Corporate Boardroom. Maybe it did in the past--when the Companies were run by Owner/Engineers. But today-- Corporations are run by Executives who know only how to play golf with other Executives. And Executives only pay attention to break-throughs that'll bring in Next Quarter profits and Stock options. They'll ignore the esoteric science that could open the door to further technological wonders. You want Antigravity? Gov't funded CERN and the LHC is the door to that possibility.
The Executive CEO raping the Silicone valley tech company for his golden parachute won't get us anywhere worthwhile.
REAL Science moves at a steady Pace. Let it Work.
@ JRS ONE
By reviewing what should get taxpayer funding, they are necessarily reviewing science. They have to, otherwise they'd be basing their decisions on hunches, and what good is that?
You can't generalize based on duck schlongs. Fundamental research doesn't have to (and shouldn't necessarily) be tied to specific applications. The point is to learn more, which will stimulate ideas for new applications that nobody has thought of yet. If we limit ourselves to applications we can think of (which are necessarily known to a certain extent), we're limiting our ability to discover anything truly new.
When DARPA invested in the first gallium arsenide research in the 50's and 60's, they had no idea of the huge impact it could (and would) have. Twenty years later, they understood what it could bring to the US economy, but the private sector was shortsighted, so DARPA kickstarted the GaAs industry in the 80's and 90's with funding to the tune of 500 million dollars. Because of this government push, a multi-billion dollar industry was born that put the US at the forefront of a telecommunications and semiconductor revolution that has driven innovation in so many other industries. Had the private sector been allowed to fester, and had Europe developed GaAs technology first, today's wealth distribution might look very different.
Without that fundamental research at the beginning, you have no idea what potential exists.
"First explain why government should be in the business of funding "science" (especially the kind YOU think they should fund, Rebecca). The invention of the light bulb wasn't funded by government, neither was the personal computer, the automobile, the airplane, the rocket, television, radio, penicillin, the Internet (ARPAnet was only one of the many predecessor technologies of the internet). As cool as rockets, space exploration and robots are, does NASA's contribution to the betterment of mankind rival, say, penicillin, personal computers, or the Internet?
And in case you forgot, "the government" is us and their "funding" is OUR MONEY--mine and yours from taxing what we worked hard to earn. Frankly, I don't want my money spent on funding stupid science, especially the wacky studies dreamed up by sociologists, which is what Rep. Lamar Smith's legislation is designed to prevent. If your peers are all nutcases who have spent way too long in the incestuousness environment of academia, then chances are their "review" is as nutty as they are."
Need a list of reasons? Here ya go:
- The government is in the business of funding science because, frankly, the public (including most investors) has absolutely NO idea of what should be researched. See the space program below for a perfect example.
- The personal computer (in fact, electronic computation in general) is only possible due to government funding. The 1st computers were actually used for artillery computations on battleships. And if you think Bell Labs (inventors of the modern transistor) had no government funding, you're simply ignorant.
- The internet is a combination of previous networks, but you're sadly misinformed. First off, ARPAnet came from DARPAnet. Second, ARPAnet *absorbed* many other significantly smaller networks to create the prototypical internet. NONE of it would exist, without the government's original mandate to find a disaster-proof networking solution.
- While space exploration may be "cool", it also has huge direct and indirect benefits to society, as a whole. Don't believe me? Fine. Try to go through an entire day without anyone using weather satellites, ATMs/debit card transactions (involving guess what? SATELLITES), heart defibrillators, infrared cameras, carbon fiber and other composites, and etc. ad absurdum; try Googling "benefits of us space program". All this, mind you, with less than 1% of the national budget!
Frankly, *YOU* ARE NOT QUALIFIED to decide whether science is "stupid" or not, and yes, it really is that simple, no matter how much it bunches your undies. Get over it.
Liked your comments! Now I don't have to type all those words.
In a free market, capitalistic society, less big brother is preferred.
I approve thumpick above comment too!
I see what you're getting at, but how is this a moral choice? Morality has nothing to do with it. Putting money in the bank instead of under your mattress has nothing to do with morality, it's a financial decision. Storing your mayo in the fridge instead of the oven is not a moral choice, it's common sense. In the same vein, if you look at the influence (both financial and in terms of quality of life) of science (and specifically gov-funded science) on absolutely everything that we see, touch and do every single day of our lives, this becomes a reasoned decision just like any other.
Lasers were widely dismissed in the 50's and 60's as purposelesss gadgets, but were developed with funding from the NSF, and turned out to be game-changers in a host of industries. NIH-funded coral reefs research led to the development of bone grafts. NSF-funded firefly research led to the discovery of a technique of measuring ATP, which had a knock-on effect in medecine. Federal funding of genomics research, estimated at $3.8 billion from 1990 to 2003, generated an economic impact of $796 billion. Investment in NASA over the years has yielded a significant return on investment to the economy (at least 2x or 3x, if not more)... not to mention my previous example, the GaAs (and GaN) industry. To a certain extent, even Silicon Valley was kickstarted by government.
I can easily cherry-pick the 5-10 most well known government-funded success stories of the past 50 years, and the resulting economic impact of those few examples obliterates (absolutely pulverizes!) the total cost of all science funding. As such, I can't understand people who argue against it, because it doesn't cost us money, it makes us money, and improves our quality of life to boot.
Dear Science: Why are you so political?
No one is saying you shouldn't be funded but there are other sources of funding available. Why do you think you are owed unfettered access to the public's hard earned money? Is it because corporate money actually expects results? Is it because venture capitalists try to determine the future viability, and profitability, of a project before they sink hard money into your research? Is this why you prefer politically driven tax dollars for your research?
Wow, another opinion piece from POPSCI. Come one guys, you're one of my favorite sites but it's not because of your political beliefs.
Once you grasp that economics is a science then you'd also agree that the worst science deniers are Democrats in Congress. They claim that our country will become prosperous by the federal government borrowing and spending trillions of dollars every year.
Science, science, science that is all I hear, what we need is more wars now that is where we should put our money in. Science is just to expensive but wars are not just fun but entertained and we all want to be entertained.
Serious this issue is from both parties so don't expect the dems to come to science rescue or Obama, these are just the facts of our future. Sooner or later they will crush science. But others will take up the mantle even if the USA falls by the wayside. Don't forget the voters they also don't seem to care when voting.
Now who is for another 12 year war?
"Congress is just a reflection of the people that vote congressmen into office. The real question is, "US voters, why are you so ignorant?" -democedes
NOT true in the slightest. Congress and therefore the US government is BROKEN. The problem is the "game" of politics itself (which, in reality, is anything but a game). Unless some major changes are made, it will be the downfall of the USA, way before any natural disaster or war or anything of the like.
Essentially all of congress is like a bunch of children on the playground who can't get along. They organize into their groups/teams/gangs/etc, (democrats/republicans), except they're all "bullies". In large part their more concerned about giving into the needs of their party and their own needs, rather that what's best for the country. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter which congress man/woman you vote for because they all have the same flaws. We would need a major paradigm shift to even have a good option to vote on.
As far as the article, It literally make me sick to my stomach. The most common education politicians have is in law, and maybe to a lesser degree in finance. That is their primary field of education and they can't even get that right... great recession, printing money, inflation, largest worldwide incarceration rate, ETC!!!!!!!!
So what on earth makes them think they know the first thing about science? Its ridiculous. Congress should be completely wiped out. A new system should be put in place where whatever matter at hand is being voted on is done so by experts in that particular field, not a bunch of idiots who only care about themselves and getting another term, that don't even have the proper background education.
I find it fascinating that many people seem to believe that directed science funding will result in research and innovation which is more likely to benefit the taxpayer. However, if we examine the history of scientific discovery and innovation closely, we would come to the realization that it is nearly impossible to anticipate which areas of research will yield the greatest benefit to society.
For example, when Michael Faraday conducted his early experiments on electricity and magnetism did he intend on creating an MRI machine, or an AC power generator to supply electricity to thousands of homes? No, his only intention was to learn more about the fundamental properties of nature, and we should note that even his endeavours were subject to a lot criticism by his contemporaries.
Science is an exploration of the natural world, and the scientist who undertakes his journey into some aspect of it can only hypothesize as to what he will find. Sometimes these explorations will be fruitful, other times they will result in the acquiring of some new piece of information which is of interest to the scientist but of very little significance to the general public. But I reiterate, given the details of the scientific journey to be embarked upon, there is no way to tell with absolute certainty which of the two aforementioned outcomes will be the result.
What I am absolutely certain of however, is that a lack of courage towards the exploration of the natural world will be detrimental to the further development of the human species.
I would fund duck genitalia research if i was a government
A quick google search found a number animal species. where rape is common and even the norm.
What makes this author so anti-Constitutional? There is nothing in the US Constitution that requires members of Congress to vote on legislation based on any scientific principles.