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A Dumb Proposal for the NSF

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

26 comments on “A Dumb Proposal for the NSF”

  1. MDA Student says:

    I’m wondering if this is more somewhat a reflection of how he would [arguably] prevent a CPRIT disaster like what has/is happening down here now.
    Thanks Lynda Chin, MD!

  2. Hadriel says:

    I had written a comment about this on another forum (, and my reply to this can be simply summarised as:
    You don’t stop a leaking tap by turning off the water supply. You fix the damn bloody tap.

  3. Hap says:

    If we could only harness arrogance, the world’s energy problems would be solved.
    Shorter-term solution: build turbines and heat-exchangers into the Capitol’s air-handling system. That should at least take Washington off the grid. You could use the money for the debt (as long as it were kept permanently separate from the rest of the budget) – that should make someone happy.

  4. Electrochemist says:

    NSF would probably claim that all 3 of these things already apply.
    The tragedy, however, will be that some of NSF’s budget will have to be diverted to document compliance with these provisions, which will result in less allocated dollars being used “…to promote the progress of science.”

  5. SP says:

    I remember when funding for straight synthetic method development was downgraded in favor of biomeducal research, all the hard core synthetic profs just started dropping in language about how exciting molecule X that required a new quaternary C-C chiral bond forming reaction could also be of great interest for treating cancer. I’m guessing very few of those molecules ever saw a cell.

  6. ton says:

    why don’t all of you people in the pharmaceutical industry quit making so many test compounds and just make the drug to start out with?

  7. Kent G. Budge says:

    ^ This.

  8. bank says:

    Well done , ton.

  9. steady teddy says:

    Each Congressperson should certify annually that all their speeches in Congress, proposed legislation and amendments are:
    1) “…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense;
    2) “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
    3) “…not duplicative of other speech or legislation.”

  10. Jumbo says:

    Surely no one is surprised by this proposal. Rather than rant at its foolishness, perhaps this is an opportunity to consider why it was written in the first place. Derek says: “Useless and even bizarre things get funded under the current system.” Is that acceptable? Why do we put up with an evaluator process that first off is stacked to reward those that already have rewards, and second, is afraid to fund studies that don’t fit neatly into the existing worldview? That bizarre and useless projects get funded is more a reflection of the caution of the current system (eg. Men drink beer because it tastes good. Really? Who would have thunk?). I would actually be in favor of lowering the funding of science in the US, if I felt that attention was paid to the way the moneys were disbursed. Does anyone honestly think that there isn’t too much waste, too much duplication? I worked for over 12 yr at the NIH and I can assure you, as much money is wasted on stupid research as is spent on “finest quality, groundbreaking” research.
    My point is that congressmen wouldn’t be driven to these sorts of misbegotten (albeit well-intentioned) proposals if scientists weren’t all too happy to suck at all the resources the taxpayer (through the government) was happy to throw their way, and then spend them mostly on studies that mainly make them feel superior to one another.

  11. lynn says:

    I hope there are more rational heads in Congress to speak up against this travesty [although I am despairing of the existence of such heads] – but I do wonder if part of the problem is not the way RFA’s and PA’s are formulated at NIH and NSF. Who’s in charge of asking for specific proposals?

  12. RM says:

    Jumbo@10, the problem is that it’s all to easy to be dismissive of research. Take your beer example. You think it’s silly research because it’s obvious. You probably would have also thought it was “obvious” if the study had concluded that they drink beer because of beverage advertising, or if it was because of habit learned from their fathers, or if it’s just a cheap way of getting drunk. All “who woulda thunk” causes … but which one is the primary driver? If you’re funding government programs to mitigate the effect of alcoholism, it matters. Programs that target alcohol advertising don’t work nearly as well if the primary driver of consumption is taste rather than promotion. You’ve also ignored the quantitative aspects. The study didn’t just find what was in the press release – there were probably percentages and size of effects to go along with it. Boring stuff for the general public, but necessary background for people doing alcohol-in-society research.
    It’s like Sarah Palin’s dig at fruit fly research. To the average Joe the plumber, looking at fruit flies is a silly waste of time – grab a can of RAID and be done with it. But to developmental biologists and certain classes of farmers, fruit fly research is a *huge* deal.
    I’m not going to say there isn’t waste, but you’re falling into the same trap that Derek is pointing out about Lamar Smith. You have the mistaken impression that we can a priori determine what research is “worthwhile”, and what is “worthless”. I wholeheartedly agree with Electrochemist@4 – with grant funding as competitive as it is, we’re already choosing those research projects that are groundbreaking and promoting the progress of science. It’s just that the small, workman (aka “worthless”) results are needed to build the base on which the breakthrough results are made, and you don’t know where those are going to happen until they do.

  13. cynical1 says:

    I’m sorry but men don’t drink beer because it tastes good because if they did Bud Light wouldn’t be the most popular beer in the US. That stuff is nasty. Just saying.

  14. BigSky says:

    If the Hon. Lamar Smith has a taste for transformative change in US government funding agencies then can we suggest > F-35.
    What must it be like to have a conversation with any of the majority of voters north of San Antonio if this is who they send to Congress?

  15. Hap says:

    Maybe the alternatives were worse? It’s hard for me to believe, but that doesn’t make it impossible – I don’t know know what the party lines look like.
    I also think if you’re a member of Congress, you circumvent the question of conversations with non-Congresspeople/lobbyists by not having conversations with them unless they have lots of money, and only after being sufficiently briefed to not make a fool of yourself.

  16. The Iron Chemist says:

    I, on the other hand, think that this is a fantastic suggestion. There aren’t nearly enough nebulous, ill-defined criteria currently in place to guide the evaluation of these proposals.

  17. Spot on Derek. I too have a discussion on this on my blog. There’s a relativity denier in the comments section.

  18. david says:

    regarding: “not duplicative” – Personally I’m a big fan of duplicative research. Replication is the best test of validity. FDA requires TWO pivotal studies of drugs, prior to approval.

  19. Carl 'SAI' Mitchell says:

    I remember a church sign I saw once: “Science is the process of going down alleys to see which ones are blind.” It was clearly meant to discourage people from trusting science, but I think it nails an important point. In science you want to test everything. You need to check each “alley” to be sure it’s blind, and that there isn’t a turn-off that’s just hidden from your view out on the street. With science you can be sure of the truth of many things, though not all. Religion is the process of going down alleys and declaring them open. If you run into a brick wall at the end you just ignore it, and sit there waiting for the wall to go away.

  20. ars-chemia says:

    I posted on CuriousWavefunctions blog that we should require all members of the House Science and Technology Committee to pass a test of a basic understanding of science. It may result in a much smaller committee but we then wouldn’t be getting anti-science types on the committee.

  21. Some comments to make. Much of what probably gets termed “useless” science are valid research questions that are presented so divorced of context that they seem silly. Some research lends itself more to this than others (“slime mold models Tokyo subway!”), but you can even paint drug research in this light if you’re feeling uncharitable: after all, a lot of early trials start with shoving random crap in rats to see what kills them.
    Another point is that these criteria are unlikely to filter research out. Ultimately, life is a creative writing exercise, so you’re just asking grant proposals to creatively describe how their research meets the criteria. The last point seems completely useless–as long as you’re not doing the exact same thing, you’ll squeak by. Point 2 is largely vacuous as well: every funded research would be “finest quality,” it’s obviously “groundbreaking” (in the specific, tiny niche that no one else works), and the “answers questions/solves problems” is eclipsed by requirement 1. The first requirement might be useful, but in practice it will resolve to describing research in terms that invokes the “dummy mode” (to quote BOFH) or to seeing how much you can misrepresent your research with a straight face (obviously, source code browsing aids are critical tools in the quest for cybersecurity!).
    In the end, it’s just going to mean lots more paperwork for no obvious benefit. It’s not like the research grants I’m on don’t already have us pump out such no-one-will-ever-read-this documentations…

  22. Omnibus101 says:

    I’m in support of Rep. Lamar Smith’s proposal for an additional layer of peer-review by the US Congress outside of Academia. At present US Congress is spending billions of tax-payer dollars, supporting research, which is based on utter nonsense, easily detectable not only by the mentioned “we” but also by the likes of Rep. Lamar Smith (cf. youtube channel timeisabsolute) because it defies absolute truths which anyone can see at once. It is impossible to rely exclusively on the peer-review system in Academia, because it is self-serving and will never allow money to be taken away from it even if the projects being funded will go nowhere for being nonsense, as is proven from the very outset. Plain nonsense can never lead to anything of scientific merit whatsoever. Nonsense must be nipped in the bud and not be allowed to proliferate under the currently existing corrupt peer-review system, isolating the party providing the funds.

  23. BrianB says:

    This is what happens when you let lawyers run society. They seem to believe that any ill can be solved by legal action, not matter how absurd. In Latin America it’s common to see a country’s economy spiraling downward for years, only to recover overnight when a non-lawyer takes the reins of government.

  24. John Tomins says:

    Wanted to know about NSF

  25. John Tomins says:

    Sleepless is an Unbearable torture

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