Less [adjective] than Zeus

Yellow Journalism In The War On Science

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)

Coburn concludes:

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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

32 Responses to Yellow Journalism In The War On Science

  1. Kaj Sotala says:

    - a study on whether playing FarmVille on Facebook builds relationships (cost: $315,000)

    I’m puzzled over why anyone would consider this a useless topic. There are lots of lonely people these days, and also lots of people playing games: trying to figure out the extent to which playing games could solve the loneliness problem seems like a very high-value task to me.

    Anyway, while the opportunity costs argument makes sense, I’m not sure how that essentially changes the basic research argument. Yes, some basic research might seem more valuable than other basic research. But if you’re requiring research to have direct benefits you’re still screwing over all the basic research, not just the valuable bits. And apparently NSF’s grant applications already include a “broader impacts” section, so you could just do the opportunity costs comparison based on that.

    Report comment

  2. im says:

    To me, the study on farmville -> relationships and the one on the avatar-user relationship both seem valuable although all of those examples seem oddly expensive.

    I’d like to note that the short-term clothing and feeding the poor might not be very valuable (it is strictly present-day, with no massive positive effects trickling through the future like inventing antibiotics or better GMO plants would be) but making sure the lower-middle-class are able to find employment probably is.

    Report comment

    • suntzuanime says:

      Oddly *expensive*? I was looking at all the ones in the mere five digits and thinking how oddly *cheap* they were. Scientists don’t work for peanuts, and sometimes they need to buy equipment or whatnot to do studies with.

      Report comment

    • Brian Delwiche says:

      The only ones that seemed conspicuously misplaced to me were the YouTube video promoting biogas and the Antactica art grant, and the latter only because it’s hard to build a strictly scientific case for it; it’s not necessarily a bad idea in its own right.

      That probably says more about my own preferences than it does about the intrinsic merit of any of these proposals, though.

      Report comment

    • Intrism says:

      I suspect the avatar->user entry is probably related to telepresence, which is actually a big deal and could potentially save the U.S. government a ridiculous amount of money.

      Report comment

    • Fnord says:

      The farmville-relationships one may seem oddly expensive because the farmville-relationships angle is one particular aspect (almost a spin-off) of a grant studying several aspects of social networking. See my post below for a slightly deeper look at what the grant is actually about.

      Report comment

  3. 1. It’s strange that you ask “WHY DO PEOPLE KEEP GETTING THEIR NEWS FROM DESIGNATED OUTRAGE FACTORIES” – a very fair question – even as a huge portion of your own post relies on Senator Coburn’s own outrage factory’s product.

    2. “The bill does not ban peer-review, in the sense of the scientific peer review that happens in journals.”

    No, it does not. However, it potentially bans or significantly weakens “peer review” in the sense of the scientific peer review that the NSF has used for years to award grants. This is the sense of the phrase “peer review” that has been commonly used by the NSF, and by those applying for grants from the NSF, for many years. The article from The Verge was unambiguously using the phrase in this sense, and therefore your criticism of The Verge is unfair.

    3. You claim that “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.”

    You’re mistaken. The bill says that research will only be funded if it “is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.” Note that it says “of other research projects”; the bill is bans funding, not “the same research” as you wrongly claim, but “other research.”

    Coburn’s report – the same one you linked to – has a section entitled “Duplication” on page 20-22: one example given of objectionable duplication is the fact that multiple government agencies fund research related to global warming. I think it’s likely that this bill – which draws its language from an earlier bill authored by Coburn – embraces Coburn’s definition of “duplication,” not yours.

    (Coburn’s report does include a few paragraphs about duplicate funding for the same projects – but it’s clear that the scope of what’s meant by “duplication” is far broader than that.)

    It’s not unreasonable to think that banning “duplicative” research funding, given Coburn’s broad view of what “duplicative” means, could potentially interfere with replication, as well as retarding research funding in some other ways. Your own certainty that no such thing could ever happen as a result of this bill, seems completely unfounded.

    As for opportunity costs, we don’t actually face a choice as dire as your argument implies. Social Science projects – which is clearly what Coburn’s report is primarily objecting to – receive less than 5% of all NSF grant money, iirc. We do not actually have to choose between researching whatever research you would say is not “idiotic” and allegedly “idiotic” research about whatever Coburn’s outrage factory is quoting out of context this week. We can, should, and do fund a wide range of research. As you correctly said – but don’t seem to draw the logical conclusion from – the allegely “idiotic” research is a drop in a bucket that is, itself, only a drop in a larger bucket.

    I’m sure that “peer review” – in the NSF sense – is not a perfect process. But I can’t imagine any better process than letting grant decisions be made by panels of qualified experts. Certainly, putting more decision-making power into the hands of a political appointee who is more vulnerable to pressure from politicians is self-evidently not as good a process.

    It’s easy for shallow outrage-machine reports like Coburn’s to cherry-pick research that sounds silly to laypeople, but that’s not a legitimate basis for judgement.

    Report comment

    • Scott Alexander says:

      1. I agree that Coburn’s report is also intended to cause outrage and also overestimates the problem. I am quoting from it not because I endorse it in its entirety, but because it provides a better insight into what opponents of the current NSF process actually think and what worries they have that they are trying to solve with this bill. I had never read it until today when I decided to look up where the NSF-opposition was coming from.

      2. Yes, I agree that the article linked to explains their use of “peer review” later down; otherwise I would be unaware of the issue myself. I was sent the article by someone telling me I needed to do something about this because the government was trying to destroy scientific peer review. See also threads like Lamar Smith Doesn’t Like Peer Review, Injecting Politics Into Scientific Peer Review, and Congressman Seeks To Destroy Scientific Peer Review. All of these say further down that they’re using “peer review” in an idiosyncratic way, but it looks like most of the people reading them don’t realize this.

      3. Are you arguing that the bill is designed to prevent replication efforts by people who know what replication efforts are and oppose them, or that the bill was intended to prevent a real problem but might accidentally prevent replication efforts as well?

      If the former, I think that Coburn’s report shows he is sufficiently upset about real problems that there’s no need to postulate an additional opposition to scientific replication for some reason. If the latter, this seems to take an overly skeptical view of the degree to which one awkward word in a bill can destroy everything.

      As you point out, we know what Coburn means by “duplication” from his report. He is worried about the same problem the people from Nature are worried about, as well as the additional problem that the government has too many agencies that don’t coordinate with each other or know what the others are doing. If five government agencies approve a similar project by accident, then we can certainly say “Well, I guess this research will be really well replicated”, but there’s a certain optimal level of replication for different amounts of research, and it’s unlikely we’ll hit it by accident simply by having many organizations that never build a coherent strategy.

      Given that this is the tradition from which Smith is citing the word “duplication”, it does not seem at all obvious to me that a prohibition on “duplication” would prohibit intentional replication efforts. An (intentional) replication seems quite different from a duplication in this sense.

      To give another example, the NSF’s current policy requires that research must “suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts”, but no one accuses this of being intended to quash attempts at replication, because we assume people will interpret rules in reasonable ways and according to the spirit in which they were suggested.

      I am not a lawyer, so if someone is a lawyer and says this wording would prohibit replication, I bow to their expertise. But no matter what they say, I still believe it is dishonest to pitch the bill as a deliberate war on scientific replication without reference to the worries about duplication that it is actually trying to alleviate.

      4. We do not actually have to choose between researching whatever research you would say is not “idiotic” and allegedly “idiotic” research about whatever Coburn’s outrage factory is quoting out of context this week.

      This is not how opportunity costs work. Insofar as we are wasting any money, that money can be spent on more beneficial projects. I predict you would not be so cavalier if we were discussing, say, military waste, and I claimed “It doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars the Pentagon spends on jets that don’t fly, it still has enough to use on useful weapons as well!”

      You seem to have this notion that if the NSF does anything at all right, then any attempt to improve the NSF must be for bad politically motivated reasons. Well, I swear I don’t secretly hate social science – I’ve written long articles defending it. And I swear I don’t secretly want to “starve the beast” – I’ve written long articles defending government agencies often being effective and efficient.

      But when you say: “I’m sure that ‘peer review’ – in the NSF sense – is not a perfect process. But I can’t imagine any better process than letting grant decisions be made by panels of qualified experts. Certainly, putting more decision-making power into the hands of a political appointee who is more vulnerable to pressure from politicians is self-evidently not as good a process.”

      …I immediately think “Oh, interesting, he’s using terms like ‘I can’t imagine’, ‘certainly’ and ‘self-evidently’ for things that about half of the population, maybe more, disagrees with him on”. And this raises red flags.

      I think there are advantages to having it done the current way, like tapping scientific expertise and avoiding the impact of politics. I also think there are potential advantages to doing it Lamar Smith’s way, like avoiding echo chambers within scientific fields, preventing an “I scratch your back you scratch mine” system that tends to arise even in grants that are supposedly blinded, and preventing the latest fads in what’s interesting disconnect the process from what is practically useful.

      Overall, my guess is that the current way is better than Lamar Smith’s way, but I’m not certain of that and I would love to hear more debate over it. And that is exactly the debate we’re not able to have because the proposal is immediately pigeonholed as “Republicans are trying to destroy science because they hate it!”

      Report comment

      • 1. “I am quoting from it not because I endorse it in its entirety, but because it provides a better insight into what opponents of the current NSF process actually think and what worries they have that they are trying to solve with this bill.”

        In the section you chose to quote, the primary worry is that the current NSF process sometimes funds ridiculous-sounding research. But you quoted it unskeptically, rather than trying to evaluate the worry and determine if it is well-founded. I think that uncritically quoting noise from the rage factory, as you do, is adding to rather than helping with the problem.

        2. ” Yes, I agree that the article linked to explains their use of “peer review” later down.”

        This implies that The Verge buried the information deep in the article, when they explained it in the very next sentence. The person who separated the phrase “peer review” from its meaning in the NSF context wasn’t the writer of the Verge article, but you when you engaged in selective quoting.

        Re your new links: In two of three cases, what’s being discussed – the peer review (aka merit review) system that the NSF uses in awarding grants – is explained near the top of the article.

        I’m sure there are some partisan democrats out there who are either confused, or exploiting confusion, about what “peer review” means in the NSF context. But your links include examples of articles which are clear and upfront about what’s meant by “peer review”; it appears that any use of the term when discussing this bill, even honest uses, is unacceptable to you.

        3.

        Are you arguing that the bill is designed to prevent replication efforts by people who know what replication efforts are and oppose them, or that the bill was intended to prevent a real problem but might accidentally prevent replication efforts as well?

        Neither option accurately describes my argument.

        I am arguing that 1) your blog post’s claims for what this bill means is ignorant and wrong. You claim that “The National Institute of Health has already made rules against duplication [in the sense of double-funding of the same research], and this bill proposes nothing more than that the National Science Foundation should do the same.”

        It is simply a lie that this bill would do “nothing more than that.” That is one small part of what the sponsors of this bill mean by “duplication,” but it’s not the whole.

        You can’t say that all you want is for people to discuss what the bill is actually about, when your own discussion of the bill is horribly inaccurate and will misinform anyone who relies on it.

        Do you really not see any difference between your post’s claims that the “duplication” being discussed is just the very narrow question of unethical double-funding, and the obviously much broader use of “duplication” in Coburn’s report? And if you do see the difference, how on earth can you justify claiming that this bill will only ban “duplication” in the narrowest sense, when that seems to be untrue?

        I agree that IF anyone is claiming this bill would DESTROY ALL REPLICATION, then they are wrong, just as your claim that it would affect nothing but double-funding is wrong.

        It’s a legitimate concern that it will become more difficult to get NSF grants to cover replication of previous work if “duplication,” as defined in Coburn’s report, is banned. I don’t have to endorse the alleged “THIS WILL DESTROY ALL REPLICATION” claims in order to think this is a problem.

        4. Nothing about opportunity costs means that we can’t fund both towel-folding robots (another NSF-funded project Coburn has mocked) and a project to better predict hurricanes. At most, you can say that by funding the towel-folding robot, we have forgone the opportunity to put 100% of our funding into predicting hurricanes.

        “Insofar as we are wasting any money, that money can be spent on more beneficial projects.”

        That’s less clear than you may believe. It’s impossible to know in advance which funding will prove, twenty years from now, to have been beneficial. Since we don’t yet know which projects are beneficial, we can’t choose to spend only on beneficial projects.

        Instead, we use a scattershot strategy; we fund tens of thousands of projects that might be beneficial, even though we expect that not all those projects will pan out.

        I don’t believe that there is any system in which tens of thousands of scientific projects are funded, that wouldn’t be susectable to the sort of criticism you echoed in your post. Senator Coburn will always be able to cherry-pick a handful of those projects and describe them in ways that make them sound silly. I don’t think that’s a legitimate method of evaluating either scientific projects, or the NSF funding mechanisms.

        I predict you would not be so cavalier if we were discussing, say, military waste, and I claimed “It doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars the Pentagon spends on jets that don’t fly, it still has enough to use on useful weapons as well!”

        Compared to scientific research, jets are incredibly expensive. An F-22, for example, costs $420 million each. The opportunity costs of an F-22 are therefore very large.

        On the other hand, if you asked me about scientific research projects the Pentagon funds at a cost ranging from tens of thousands to one or two million, I’d be exactly as cavalier. Because the opportunity costs of funding such projects are actually quite small, and the potential benefits of science funding quite large.

        Report comment

  4. Sorry for the second comment. I just wanted to check the “notify me of follow-up comments” option.

    Report comment

  5. sixes_and_sevens says:

    At risk of introducing you to seemingly-edifying time-wasting materials, In The Pipeline is the blog of Derek Lowe, an erudite organic chemist in the pharmaceuticals industry. I’d strongly recommend reading his “Things I Won’t Work With” section if you’re in need of tales of ridiculously and hilariously dangerous substances.

    I advocate him as a Talking Head you may be interested in following on this subject.

    Report comment

    • St. Rev says:

      Emphatically seconding this. Read both of his posts on the Lamar Smith proposal; his take will look very familiar to Less Wrongers.

      And here’s Things I Won’t Work With, which is tons of explosive/incendiary/poisonous fun.

      Report comment

      • sixes_and_sevens says:

        I’m particularly fond of this one:

        The great majority of Streng’s reactions have surely never been run again. The paper goes on to react FOOF with everything else you wouldn’t react it with: ammonia (“vigorous”, this at 100K), water ice (explosion, natch), chlorine (“violent explosion”, so he added it more slowly the second time), red phosphorus (not good), bromine fluoride, chlorine trifluoride (say what?), perchloryl fluoride (!), tetrafluorohydrazine (how on Earth. . .), and on, and on. If the paper weren’t laid out in complete grammatical sentences and published in JACS, you’d swear it was the work of a violent lunatic.

        Report comment

  6. Deiseach says:

    So this bill is about government making science sing for its supper when it comes to public funding. Much the same as the U.K. (if I can trust what I read in “Private Eye”) has been doing, with not so great effects.

    The craze there has been for privatisation – selling off such former government or public bodies such as the Forensic Science Service – with the kind of results you would expect.

    However, this bill strikes me as different. It’s yet another spin on the argument about the value of practical versus theoretical research, and when it comes to the public purse, politicians like to be seen to be Doing Something (not actually cutting down their own perks or reining in their business and lobby contacts, but going after soft targets).

    If I were an American taxpayer, and I found out that the very scientists looking for a share of the money I pay in taxes characterised me as a “Texas a-holes in shitkickers and big ol’ cowboy hats, who probably don’t care much for them fruit flies”, then I would not be very sympathetic to the bleating of tenured professors in ivory-tower boltholes who never had to do a day’s real work in their lives. (Two can play at the invective game).

    I think there is reason for genuine concern about making science “profitable” as a criterion for what gets funded from the public purse, but creating a campaign of opposition based on “This is anti-science prejudice probably based on or pandering to religious fundamentalism!!!!” is not the way to attract mass public support.

    Funnily enough, people don’t much like being called names and labelled as being stupid hicks from the country, especially if they do come from the country. Some of us straw-chewing hayseeds actually appreciate science, but we don’t appreciate science-supporters calling us knuckle-dragging inferiors.

    Report comment

  7. Randy M says:

    There’s basically only two categories of budget items that are discussed–Those too big (and therefore important) to cut, and those too small to bother cutting.

    Report comment

  8. Vladimir says:

    What I always find the most horrifying in controversies of this kind is the extent to which peer review is taken to be synonymous with (or at least an essential part of) doing sound and valid science.

    To anyone who actually cares about science in the original sense of systematic endeavor aimed at bringing our view of the world closer to reality, this should be infinitely more worrisome than anything from the circus of daily politics. We have largely divorced our modern notion of science from this original sense and made it instead a matter of obtaining official titles, filing the right paperwork, and receiving the imprimatur from specific bureaucratic institutions. And for these institutions, in most cases, nobody can give any good argument why we should expect that their incentive structures will drive this bureaucratic process towards producing valid science and correct insight.

    Of course, rather than asking such questions, in practice it’s much easier (and more profitable, at least in terms of status) to pretend that mindless shilling for these bureaucracies is in fact a heroic and virtuous defense of real science and intellectual integrity against mighty and nefarious enemies. Hence the apoplectic outrage at such trifling incidents where some politicians try to score points by pretending to stand up to the bureaucracies of official science. (As if they could actually do anything there even if they really wanted!)

    Report comment

  9. Fnord says:

    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.

    Here’s the NSF page for Coburn’s alleged “a study on whether playing FarmVille on Facebook builds relationships”, which I grabbed from his own footnotes. According to that site, it lead to the paper (among other things) Student use of Facebook for organizing collaborative classroom activities. From the abstract:

    In this study, we examine how undergraduate students use the social network site Facebook to engage in classroom-related collaborative activities (e.g., arranging study groups, learning about course processes) to show how Facebook may be used as an informal tool that students use to organize their classroom experiences, and explore the factors that predict type of use.

    See any possible way that sort of research might develop into something that would be beneficial to know?

    Report comment

    • Fnord says:

      The sarcastic question at the end is perhaps unnecessarily nasty. Sorry about that.

      But the point is that if you look at what Coburn himself declares to be the research priorities he has a problem, with a closer examination than the surface level gloss he gives it, it’s not all that difficult to see how this stuff could turn into something useful.

      Report comment

      • Randy M says:

        Not particularly easy, either, imo. Unless you are Facebook, of course.

        Report comment

        • Fnord says:

          I would think that understanding the mechanisms people use to cooperate could be useful information for lots of people.

          Report comment

        • Randy M says:

          I think the connection between “students use facebook to ask what the literature assignment was” and “we are ushering in the brotherhood of man”* is rather tenuous. But that’s research, I guess.

          *unfair hyperbole solely intended for comedic effect. Replace with more reasonable end goal such as “improve information sharing between federal agencies using p2p networks” if not you’d prefer a fair argument.

          Report comment

  10. Anonymous says:

    The only part I’ve personally seen friends objecting to are the new grant requirements, specifically that funded research should be `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’.

    I’m a mathematician. Basically none of what I do is obviously beneficial to society at large. If this bill were interpreted strictly, academic mathematicians would basically cease to exist.

    Report comment

    • Emily says:

      Are academic mathematicians overwhelmingly funded by the NSF? I would have guessed that a lot of academic research in math is paid for by colleges and universities – they hire professors, and the professors both teach and publish.

      Report comment

    • Randy M says:

      Is some of what you do non-obviously beneficial to society at large? Honest question, I’m not intimately familiar with academic mathematicians.

      Report comment

      • g says:

        What happens with (pure) mathematics is that most of it is never of any interest to anyone other than mathematicians, but every now and then something previously obscure and obviously-useless turns out to be absolutely vital for something extremely important and practical. (Various bits of linear algebra for quantum mechanics. Differential geometry for general relativity. Number theory for cryptography.)

        Also, everything in mathematics is connected to everything else, so when one branch of mathematics is unexpectedly found to have practical applications lots of other bits may be indirectly implicated.

        (None of the above should be taken to endorse the proposition that pure mathematics is valuable only, or mostly, for its occasional practical applications.)

        Report comment

    • mrmandias says:

      How do you “strictly interpret” boilerplate language like that? Anyone who thinks this language is meaningful needs to talk to a lawyer.

      Report comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>