This is a bad idea: Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) is circulating a draft of a bill to change the way the National Science Foundation reviews grant applications. Science magazine obtained a copy of the current version, and it would require the NSF to certify that all research it funds is:
1) “…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
2) “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
3) “…not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”
If we could fund things this way, we would be living in a different world entirely. Research, though, does not and cannot follow these guidelines. A lot of stuff gets looked into that doesn’t work out, and a lot of things that do work out don’t look like they’re ever going to be of much use for anything. We are not smart enough to put bets down on only the really important stuff up front – and by “we”, I mean the entire scientific community, and the director of the NSF, and even Representative Lamar Smith.
Useless and even bizarre things get funded under the current system, of that I have no doubt. But telling everyone that all research has to be certified as good for something is silly grandstanding. What will happen is that people will rewrite their grant applications in order to make them look attractive under whatever rules apply – which, naturally, is how it’s always worked. So I’m not saying that Rep. Smith’s proposal would Destroy Science in America. That would take a lot more work. No, what I’m saying is that Rep. Smith’s view of the world is flawed. He seems to believe that legislation of this sort is the answer to large, difficult problems (witness his work on the Stop Online Piracy Act). As such, he would seem to be exactly the sort of person that I wish could be barred from serving as an elected official.
If I were Lamar Smith, I would probably be thinking of a bill that I could introduce to that effect (the Stop Overreaching Legislators Act?) But I’m not the sort of person who thinks that the world can be fixed up by passing the right laws and signing the right papers. I’m more in line with Mark Twain, when he said that no one’s life, liberty, or property was safe while the legislature was in session.
Note: more thoughts added here, later in the day