Need to pander to your base? Attack funny-sounding science funded by the NSF!

Even though I was only in junior high and high school back in the 1970s, because I was already turning into a science geek I remember Senator William Proxmire (D-WI). In particular, I remember his Golden Fleece awards. These were “awards” designed to highlight what he saw as wasteful government spending, targeting, for instance, the use of taxpayer funds to fly over 1,000 officers to a reunion of the Tailhook Association or financing the construction of an 800- foot limestone replica of the Great Wall of China in Bedford, Indiana. Others, although they sounded on the surface to be wasteful, actually might not have been.

Later, as I went to college and medical school, I started to realize that when the Golden Fleece Awards were “awarded” to science projects they frequently betrayed a profound ignorance of science. What they did, more than anything else, was to take cheap shots at worthy scientific projects that could easily be made to sound ridiculous to the scientifically ignorant. In other words, when it came to science the Golden Fleece Awards were anti-intellectual and anti-science to the core, more akin to demagoguery than anything else. Examples abound and include the infamous Golden Fleece given to what Proxmire dismissively referred to as “tequila fish” research (which, by the way, was also Proxmire’s favorite Golden Fleece Award of all). The “award” was given to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in 1975 because it funded a grant to a researcher to study, among other things, whether drunken fish are more aggressive than sober fish, whether young rats are more likely than adult rats to drink booze in order to reduce anxiety, and whether rats can be systematically turned into alcoholics. It’s a project that sounds ridiculous on the surface but in reality to most scientists would sound like important research into alcoholism using animal models. Other examples of abuse of science by Proxmire’s “award” included a National Science Foundation grant to investigate the importance of social justice and equity in romantic exchanges, another study funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse to study the effects of marijuana on sexual arousal, and a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health in 1978 to study comparing the amount of food eaten by obese and normal weight people ordering from a menu compared to going to a buffet. In light of the “obesity” epidemic this nation has experienced over the last 30 years, this last bit of research seems downright prescient.

Be that as it may, although the Golden Fleece Award ruthlessly mocked whatever Proxmire’s staff perceived to be government waste, often when such projects were examined more closely it turns out that there were very good reasons for them. In particular, when it came to science projects, Proxmire’s awards misfired big time far more often than they were on target, such as his bestowing upon the Environmental Protection Agency for funding a study in Vermont in 1978 to determine whether runoff from open stacks of cow manure was the cause of pollution in nearby streams and ponds. In other words, it’s whipping science in the name of politics, and it’s something that, from time to time, politicians of all political stripes have done. “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” It’s the Eternal Return all over again.

Of course, the Eternal Return doesn’t necessarily mean that all this will happen again exactly the same way. Consistent with that, the Golden Fleece Award appears to have been reborn, only this time in an more brain dead form that consists of an explicitly political attack on the National Science Foundation. As reported in Science and on LiveScience and commented on by several bloggers, including Mike the Mad Biologist, Steve Silberman, namnezia, Neurodojo, and the Prodigal Academic, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has produced a 73-page report entitled The National Science Foundation Under the Microscope. Coburn’s report lambastes the NSF for alleged culture of waste, fraud, and mismanagement. Before I get into the utter idiocy that makes up much of this report, I can’t help but point out that the NSF, as mentioned in the preamble of this report, has a budget of $6.9 billion a year, and Sen. Coburn is very, very concerned that the President proposes to increase its budget by $1 billion, intoning ominously in the preamble:

The President’s proposed budget for this year would increase NSF funding by nearly $1 billion–a 13 percent increase–a significant increase at a time of record deficits. In 2007 and 2010, Congress overwhelmingly passed and reauthorized the America COMPETES Act (Public Law 110-69) which would double NSF funding over seven years. This dramatic increase in spending passed with little debate or dissent.

The theory in Washington all too often tends to be if you throw enough money at a problem, you can solve all our nation’s problems. But when Congress commits the nation to significant increases in spending, Congress owes it to the U.S. taxpayers to pay careful attention to how those dollars are being spent.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about the real money spent by government, such as the defense budget or many entitlements. In reality, the entire NSF budget could be quite comfortably accommodated within rounding errors in budgets of the Pentagon and various entitlement programs (which are, of course, where the real money is spent by the federal government); yet Coburn is shocked and dismayed that President Obama might want to increase its budget, even though the proposed FY 2012 NSF budget represents approximately 0.2% of the $3.7 trillion federal budget. Lots of savings to be had there! We can really reduce the deficit by eliminating waste at the NSF, can’t we? If we eliminated the entire NSF, we’d decrease the FY 2012 federal deficit by maybe 0.6%. Woo-hoo!

Coburn then states:

Very few of the proposals submitted for NSF financial support represented transformative scientific research according to most grant reviewers surveyed. Taxpayers may also question the value of many of the projects NSF actually chose to fund, such as: How to ride a bike; When did dogs became man’s best friend; If political views are genetically pre-determined; How to improve the quality of wine; Do boys like to play with trucks and girls like to play with dolls; How rumors get started; If parents choose trendy baby names; How much housework does a husband create for a wife; and When is the best time to buy a ticket to a sold out sporting event.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about too many of the specific projects Coburn criticizes, Proxmire-like in silliness, pontification, and political grandstanding (well, maybe one or two), because, for instance, Steve Silberman does it well, as does Todd Gureckis, who was surprised to find himself on Coburn’s list of “frivolous” research projects and points out the numerous errors in the description of just his research in Coburn’s report, which describes it thusly:

Armed with a $1 million grant from the NSF, researchers at Indian University-Bloomington and New York University analyzed baby names to determine trends in parents’ naming decisions.130 Their conclusion: popular names are popular with parents.

The new research “suggests that parents in the USA seem to prefer baby names that have risen in popularity, rather than those that have been popular for a while and may be on the way out.”131 The researchers were quoted claiming the study as “relevant to understanding how people’s everyday decisions are influenced by aggregate cultural processes.”132 In other words, they wanted to confirm that Americans do, indeed, tend to follow trends.

New parents and social scientists do not exactly need to look very hard to see trends in baby names. In addition to many familiar baby name books, a simple google search of “baby name trends” yields 721,000 results, including websites such as nametrends.net, babynames.com, and babynamestats.com. On babynamestats.com, you can easily find data on naming trends over the last century.

Gureckis responds (in part, his entire response is worth reading):

Had those developing this report actually looked at the research paper they were criticizing, they would know that we were not specifically interested in baby names except in so far as they offer a unique opportunity for studying such the impact of social influence on decision making. We all know that iPhones are popular but the underlying reasons for this cultural success is distorted by the role that advertising budgets and existing computer technologies play in determining which ideas win out and which die off in the consumer marketplace. In contrast, the popularity of names is more organically determined by processes of social influence (there is no company out there trying to convince you to name you child something in particular). Baby names thus represent an important and relatively “pure” empirical test of theories of cultural transmission and social influence in large groups.

The Coburn report makes it seem as though this research spent money to determine the frequency and popularity of names. Fortunately, this data was provided for free by the Social Security Administration which has recorded and published the most popular baby names in the United States since the 1880s (freely available here: http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/). Many of the popular websites that analyze naming trends rely on the same data source. Any NSF funds used toward this effort paid exclusively for the statistical/mathematical analysis of this data. In fact, in the context of a discussion about government waste, this is a great example of government efficiency since data collected for one purpose (issuing social security cards), which would have been very expensive to collect otherwise, turns out to be very useful to NSF and NIH supported peer-reviewed science.

This is just one example, and I just realized that I went into one example in detail. Oh, well. Mea culpa. It was just too juicy to resist.

More interesting to me is the criticism that permeates the Coburn report that very little of what the NSF funds is “transformative” research. Indeed, he has a whole section on the sorts of “trasnformative” research that the NSF has funded in the past (p.8 of his report). Examples over the last 30 or 40 years include:

  1. The Internet. The report duly notes, was involved in developing early Internet technologies through efforts that included “NSFNET.” By the 1980s, the primary funding for Internet development had been assumed by the NSF.
  2. Buckyballs. A form of “carbon-composed clusters” bonded in a polyhedral that have similarities to the surface of a soccer ball and were developed in 1985 by NSF-funded researchers.
  3. Magnetic resonance imaging. It’s hard to imagine how I would do my job as a breast surgeon without MRI, and MRI is used widely to image the spine, brain, and many other anatomic structures without the use of ionizing radiation.
  4. Bar codes. Again, it’s hard to imagine life without bar code scanners, so ubiquitous have they become.
  5. Cloud computing. The report notes, “In 2007, NSF partnered with IBM and Google to provide computer science students with the necessary skills to develop “cloud computing” applications. Cloud computing is Internet-based–rather than hardware computing–that allows shared resources, software, and information provided to computers and other devices on demand, in a manner similar to an electricity grid. NSF created the Cluster Exploratory Initiative in 2008 to provide researchers access to software and services on the Google-IBM cluster.
  6. Retinal prostheses. The report references NSF-funded work on retinal prostheses, which could lead to therapies to restore some level of eyesight to the blind.

Quite frankly, given how small the budget of the NSF is, these projects alone represent quite an impressive list of “transformative” research projects, and this is but a sampling of the sort of science and technology projects that have been funded over the years by the NSF. Unfortunately, from this Coburn derives an utterly ridiculous standard for funding scientific research:

These projects provide a contrast to the wasteful and frivolous research projects highlighted in this report–and show the consequences of using limited dollars on low-priority grants. These projects represent good examples transformative science that will change our understanding of important scientific concepts. These research efforts are important scientific ideas that transcend the whims of individual researchers or federal government bureaucrats. And these investments were appropriate expenditures of federal funds.

Real, transformative research should be the standard for all NSF supported projects. Recognizing that all scientific endeavors do not result in the intended outcome, NSF investments can advance knowledge and in many cases improve the human condition rather than simply satisfying the random curiosities of some researchers.

Later (p.52), it is proposed:

And while evaluating the overall quality of grant application should remain in the hands of scientists with clear NSF guidance, scientists, agency officials, policymakers, and taxpayers should all be able to agree any research receiving federal funds should be able to affirmatively answer each of the following questions:

  • Does this research represent science that could significantly change our understanding of important scientific concepts?
  • Does the subject of this study represent an important scientific idea rather than the whimsy of individual researchers?
  • Is this study an appropriate expenditure of federal funds at a time when the U.S. national debt is nearly $14 trillion?

Here’s the problem with so-called “transformative research.” There’s no good way to recognize in advance which specific lines of research will be “tranformative.” In other words, we don’t know which research is truly “transformative” until after it has been done, after the results are known, and after the effects of the results on science, technology, and society can be assessed. Back in 1985, for example, when NSFNET was born and later began to be linked to other networks, no one had any real idea that in 2011 the Internet would be so central to our everyday life and that we would would be using it to communicate by e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs; to transmit entertainment in the form of music and movies; and to do so many financial transactions, to name just a few ways that the Internet has become essential to everyday activities in developed countries. When MRIs were developed from the spectroscopy technique used to study the structures of organic molecules (nuclear magnetic resonance), no one could have been sure that it would be superior to CT scans for many applications or that it would become so ubiquitous so quickly. Ditto bar codes. To boil it all down, requiring that any funded research be “transformative” is utter nonsense, because scientific peer review can’t easily recognize research that is truly transformative before it’s done. Most projects fail; that’s how science works. Some succeed, and from those will come a very small number of truly transformative research projects. In other words, if we could reliably predict which lines of research would be truly transformative, we almost wouldn’t need to to the research itself. What we can do is to fund the best and most creative science that we can, knowing that our ability to recognize what will and won’t be transformative ahead of time is highly unreliable, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Come to think of it, this criticism by Coburn reminds me of criticism of the National Cancer Institute that it’s “playing it too safe” and as a result we haven’t cured cancer yet. Eternal Return be praised! Everything old is new again. Such complaints tend to be made in the absence of any hard evidence that (1) innovative ideas don’t eventually earn funding and (2) that funding “riskier” (or, in this case, “transformative”) ideas will inevitably lead to more home runs in research. Moreover, it’s incredibly rare that any single study will be “transformative” in and of itself. Individual studies are pieces of a puzzle, the picture made by which could ultimately turn out to be transformative. You can’t tell from individual pieces, though.

I also couldn’t help but notice that Coburn’s office appears not to have bothered to read the NSF’s very own review criteria, which focus on two key questions:

  • What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
  • What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

I also can’t help but note that, under the question of the intellectual merit of submitted research proposals, the NSF asks, “To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?” (Emphasis mine.) Yes, the word “transformative” is right there in the NSF guidelines! It’s already an important criterion used by peer reviewers evaluating grant applications. Seriously, Coburn should peruse the NSF website before laying down such ignorance.

Of course, the real reason behind this attack is not to improve research at the NSF. The smear tactics used, in which Coburn criticizes the NSF because at the NSF research station McMurdo in Anarctica researchers had a Jello wrestling event. He also notes that the employee who arranged the Jello wrestle was fired. So what’s the problem? Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen when someone screws up badly enough? Apparently not to Coburn, who uses the incident an excuse to show a picture of Jello wrestling and to imply that NSF-funded investigators and employees are doing nothing with your tax dollars all day other than Jello wrestling, skinny dipping, perusing online porn, and jetting away for romantic getaways. I’m not saying that oversight shouldn’t be such that NSF funds can’t easily be misused, but I am saying that Coburn’s attack is very transparent in its purpose, and that purpose is not to save taxpayers money that will matter one whit in terms of decreasing the deficit.

One criticism in particular is offbase:

The biggest “savings” that Coburn identifies is actually a misreading of federal statutes, according to NSF officials. The report accuses NSF of failing to recover $1.7 billion in “expired grants,” that is, money grantees didn’t spend in the course of doing their research. But that’s not true, says NSF. The number reflects all the money that has been obligated for multiyear grants, and the amount (as of last fall) drops as researchers tap their accounts over the duration of their project. “It’s being used for exactly the purpose for which it was intended,” explains one budget official who requested anonymity.

Only a tiny amount–roughly $30 million a year–is actually left on the table once a researcher has finished his or her project. And that amount is returned each year to the Treasury. “You’d think a U.S. senator would understand how the federal government funds multiyear research projects,” says one lobbyist.

So Coburn doesn’t even know how NSF budgeting for multiyear grants works.

Most telling of all, Coburn proposes eliminating NSF funding for social sciences (p. 53), damning them with faint praise that to “varying degrees, each of these fields represents interesting and–many times–important areas of research and discovery” and then asking, “do any of these social studies represent obvious national priorities that deserve a cut of the same pie as astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, physics, and oceanography?” One can argue over the relative importance of various sciences, but that’s not really what Coburn does. What he does is to take research out of context, cherry picking projects whose names sound silly and representing them as the entire research program, while misrepresenting them in simplistic terms to make them sound even sillier. One suspects that the real reason that Coburn wants to attack social sciences is because its studies might contradict what he think he knows to be true. And to pander to his base. Whatever the reason, he’s done a serious disservice to the NSF and to science in America in general.