Thursday, January 27, 2011

science funding and the GOP

I wrote this post a while ago on my personal tumblr when I first saw PZ myers' post on it. The obvious disclaimer is that i am pretty left-wing politically.

This doesn't mean I am completely blind to some right-wing issues though; our national debt is kind of insane right now.

So yes, we need to reign in some spending.

Cue Eric Cantor, the incoming republican majority whip. One of his new ideas is to get the populace involved in what should and shouldn't be cut to balance the budget, in a new program called "YouCut". Ignoring the blatant appeal to the popularity of YouTube, let us instead focus on one of the ideas he decided would be awesome for the general public to investigate for wasteful spending.
He thinks that it would be a GREAT idea if the general public were to go in, search the NSF for grants they thought were a waste of money, and report back to him. 

No, I am not kidding

Disregard the fact that the NSF funding is ridiculously hard to come by (I know this personally). Disregard the fact that in the context of the overall deficit (roughly 3.5 trillion), the NSF's spending (6.8 billion) is kind of small potatoes. Disregard the fact that most of that grant money goes right back to the economy in the form of laboratory equipment purchased, compensation for research participants, funding for universities, and as a salary for the researchers themselves (which will inevitably come back to the american economy. scientists leave the laboratory SOMETIMES). Disregard that fact that the money they are talking about spending is for scientific endeavors.
Especially disregard that last part, because it isn't like america is lagging behind many other nations in scientific education.

Let us look at what Eric Cantor wants America to do:
Step One: Look for Questionable Grants
Click here to open the National Science Foundation website. In the "Search Award For" field, try some keywords, such as: success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc. to bring up grants. If you find a grant that you believe is a waste of your taxdollars, be sure to record the award number.
Step Two: Submit Award Numbers
Use this form to submit the award numbers of grants that you believe are wasteful; we will publish a report outlining the grants identified by the YouCut community.
Okay lets stop for a second here. Why does he want to do this again? Because apparently the NSF spends too much money on things like
...some more questionable projects - $750,000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players and $1.2 million to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game industry.
Okay first of all, that ""soccer model" was actually TWO grants. Additionally, the only connection this has with soccer is that soccer scores were the data the team used to model this study. The actual papers produced have nothing to do with soccer scores. Like this one
Kho, A; Sales-Pardo, M; Wilson, J. "From Clean Dishes to Clean Hands Novel Perspectives in the Fight Against Infections," IEEE ENGINEERING IN MEDICINE AND BIOLOGY MAGAZINE, v.27, 2008, p. 26-28.
But okay Cantor, that was totally wasteful spending, that $750k on "soccer research". It didn't produce anything worthwhile. Alright fine. How about that 1.2 million dollar grant for "modeling the sound of objects breaking for the games industry"? Well first of all I can't find one grant for this, which makes me think it is actually a bunch of smaller grants all together like the "soccer study", and secondly I am fairly certain that modeling breaking sounds was only a small part of the overall aim. additionally, I thought the GOP liked industry? Or does the games industry not count because video games are evil?

Let us go back to Cantor's instructions. He gave us some choice keywords such as "museums" "social norms" and "culture". Think about those for a second- museums are apparently wasteful spending now. "social norms" is usually used in sociology studies to investigate how non-traditional genders affect those norms. So in essence, this is concern trolling about homosexual and queer-gender oriented research. or so you would think! I followed the instructions and searched for "social norms" as a keyword in awarded grants for this year, and the biggest grant under that keyword?$1.1 million dollars to model "the spread of contagions such as opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and diseases across a national population". in essence, epidemiology research. here is a paper published with that money
Eubank S, Barrett C, Beckman R, Bisset K, Durbeck L, Kuhlman C, Lewis B, Marathe A, Marathe M, Stretz P. "Detail in network models of epidemiology: Are we there yet?," Journal of Biological Dynamics, 2010.
Literally epidemiology research. But apparently that is wasteful...unless Cantor wants us to trim up the overbearing sum of $10,000 awarded to study how people form opinions of fairness in a social environment. The point here I am trying to make is that on the surface these things can appear to be a waste of money, but in most cases there is some larger benefit to society. how do i know that? well I recently finished submitting my OWN application to the NSF, and in order for my application to succeed and for me to secure funding (on how worms regenerate and divide asexually...which has implications for treating neurdegenerative diseases in humans...) I had to satisfy the NSF's Broader Impacts criteria, which are defined as
• How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting
teaching, training and learning?
• How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of
underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?
• To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such
as facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships?
• Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological
• What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?
But I guess the fact that the NSF's own budgetary committee evaluates all funding applications based on these criteria doesn't mean anything at all and in fact, the american population (which remember, has some of the lowest scientific education in the world) is better equipped to determine which studies are a waste of money.

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