The Internet has exploded with hatred for a new draft bill making its way through the House – called, in classic Congressional weasel language, “The High Quality Research Act”
Pharyngula, showing the subtlety and restraint for which it is famous, says it’s about “destroying science in the US”. The Verge says it will “replace peer review”. The Daily Kos says since science proves Republicans are wrong, Republicans are trying to legislate away science. The most worrying description comes from sodahead.com, which says it will “destroy any concept of facts in America”.
Yes, you heard that right. If this bill passes, scientists will be federally mandated to say things like “Well, it’s my opinion that the sun is a giant ball of plasma 93 million miles from the Earth, but if other people say about as high up as the average passenger plane and approximately the size of a grapefruit, that’s a valid opinion too.”
Wait, no, the bill has nothing to do with that and WHY DO PEOPLE KEEP GETTING THEIR NEWS FROM DESIGNATED OUTRAGE FACTORIES AAAARGH!
Having taken a cursory three-second glance at the text of the bill, let me note some things that I already understand better than anyone else who has written about it thus far.
The bill does not ban peer-review, in the sense of the scientific peer review that happens in journals. It changes the review process for grant funding from one where domain experts review which grants are likely to be useful, to one where the head of the NSF chooses projects to fund directly. Because the domain experts are sort of “peers” of the scientists involved, and they’re “reviewing” the grants, you can sort of call this process “peer review”, and if you do that, this bill “ends peer review”. But if you just write a headline saying “REPUBLICANS TRY TO ABOLISH PEER REVIEW IN NEW ANTI-SCIENCE BILL”, no.
The bill is not trying to ban the replication process either (sadly, if there are any politicians who hate studies being replicated, they’re probably pretty content with the current state of science already.) The bill actually bans “duplication” of studies, which surprisingly is not the same concept despite being an extremely similar sounding word! Duplication seems to be the process of getting several times as much money for the same research by applying for multiple grants without informing one grant agency that you already received a grant from the other. The scientific community has been worried about this process for a while, and even Nature published an article raising the alarm about it. Even such a bastion of anti-science Republicanism as the New York Times has spoken out against the problem. The National Institute of Health has already made rules against duplication, and this bill proposes nothing more than that the National Science Foundation should do the same.
The legitimate worry about this bill is that it restricts funding to research that “is in the interests of the United States [and serves to] advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science”.
This has been caricatured as an an attempt to:
…write patriotism into the funding of science. Our work must promote AMERICA, and also must be of utmost importance, where importance is to be defined by Texas a-holes in shitkickers and big ol’ cowboy hats, who probably don’t care much for them fruit flies.
A more generous reading says that the use of “United States” is mostly about Congresspeople’s tendency to name-drop our Glorious Country Of Freedom And Justice on any possible occasion, and that the main thrust of that section is that research funded by the government should be practical. It ought to improve the country in some way.
Even this more charitable framing has its critics. One blog pointed out how often we get good results from basic research. It suggested that it might seem “profitable” to cut out the ivory-tower-seeming project of trying to get materials to emit weirdly coherent beams of light, without realizing that lasers would someday be used to play DVDs, perform delicate surgeries, and annhilate Alderaan.
And people are quick to point out some famous missteps by politicians: Sarah Palin condemned research on fruit flies, even though that leads to a better understanding of genetics and of human disease, and Bobby Jindal made fun of volcano monitoring only a few days before a volcano erupted and early warning systems managed to successful save people and property.
But keep in mind that these are examples filtered by what actual scientists would call “selection bias” – that is, we know about them precisely because they are stupid. If we were to look at what opponents of current NSF funding priorities are really objecting to, the story would be a little different. Senator Tom Coburn, in his anti-NSF report, lists:
- a YouTube rap video attacking fossil fuels and promoting biogas (cost: $50,000)
- a study on whether playing FarmVille on Facebook builds relationships (cost: $315,000)
- a study on why the same teams always seem to be dominating March Madness (cost: $80,000)
- a study on whether people who often post pictures on the Internet from the same location at the same time are usually friends (yes, cost: $2 million)
- a study on the relationship of virtual world users to their avatars (cost: $90,000)
- a study on how often people lie in text messages (cost: $476,000)
- a study on whether Twitter users tweet in regional slang ($1.4 million)
- a virtual recreation of the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair ($1.2 million)
- a project to send artists to Antarctica so they could make art about it ($300,000)
While taxpayers support investing in science, most would likely question the merits of these projects. Who would disagree the dollars spent on these efforts could not have been better targeted identifying more efficient, renewable fuels, developing the next generation of computers, creating new antibiotics for resistant bacteria, or simply reducing the nation’s debt.
So I’m probably the worst person to complain about some of these, seeing as how I had to actively restrain myself from going off and reading through some of those wasteful studies until I had finished this blog post. And I also do worry that this could be used as a way of stigmatizing social science in favor of the sexier “hard sciences”, or of attacking projects that get important scientific results in unorthodox ways (for example, study human psychology or decision-making via an online video game).
But, well, this reminds me of my thoughts on Ozy’s post about how The Government Does Not Spend Enough Money Researching Snail Sex (huh, somehow the National Science Foundation spending $880,000 on snail sex failed to make it into Senator Coburn’s report, which makes me wonder what else he left out).
Ozy’s post was well-written, it lucidly supports the cause of Science, it makes a good case for why snail sex is interesting, and it can be completely demolished by two words, those being of course “OPPORTUNITY COSTS”.
Like, I think it’s nice that we know more about snail sex. There’s just lots of other things we could do with $880,000 that would be even nicer. Eisenhower said that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Every study that is run on snail sex does much the same. And since broad budgetary categories are pretty fixed, bad science funding priorities are robbing neither from the clothing budget nor from the warship budget, but from other scientists who may have important research they can’t pursue.
I agree this is by no means the worst waste of money our government is engaged in; that the entire National Science Foundation is only a drop in the bucket, that probably all of these idiotic projects, even if we accept they are idiotic, are themselves only a drop in the National Science Foundation’s drop.
But this is what the debate is about. If you want to engage in the debate, you’re going to have to say that, instead of trying to distract from it, instead of claiming this is about people who want to ban peer review and stop inventing lasers. This debate is about Congress worrying the current NSF grant criteria produce lots of duplicates and the occasional million dollars spent on studying Facebook-friending, and just want to pass a law saying not to do that.
I do not know how much room for improvement in the National Science Foundation there really is, or whether a NSF run the way Lamar Smith wants it to run would be better or worse than the way it currently operates. This is a debate that I would look forward to seeing people who know a lot more about science, politics, and economics than I do having.
But anything anyone has said about this bill thus far isn’t it.