Citizens Against Peer Review

By Chris Mooney | December 3, 2010 10:59 am

I just came across this video, in which Republican House science committee member Adrian Smith of Nebraska calls upon the public to sift through government research grants to identify waste:

And here’s part of the text that accompanies the video:

NSF makes more than 10,000 new grant awards annually, many of these grants fund worthy research in the hard sciences. Recently, however NSF has funded 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. Help us identify grants that are wasteful or that you don’t think are a good use of taxpayer dollars.

So here’s the problem. These scientific grants are peer reviewed. You can look at them in an offhand way and decide that hey, they involve soccer or video games, and therefore infer that they’re stupid and wasteful–but that’s not a fair way of going about it. Just because research involves these subjects doesn’t mean it’s not scientifically meritorious.

Let’s look at some of the research in question, and see if it really is so silly. The first grant, concerning “soccer”? As Live Science explains:

LiveScience did some digging and found that the money went to Northwestern University engineering professor Luis Amaral, who has created models to rank soccer player success. But the work is more broadly applicable to understanding the contributions of team members in any organization, including workplaces, the researchers wrote in a paper published in June in the open-access journal PLoS One. Amaral also researches other complex systems like the stock market and ecosystems, as well as the impact of scientific research and the performance of individual scientists and institutions.

And the second grant, concerning “video games”? It appears to be this Cornell research, which of course was also deemed meritorious by peer review:

Computational physics can help us animate crashing rigid and deformable bodies, or fracturing solids, or splashing water, but the results are silent movies. Virtually no practical algorithms exist for synthesizing synchronized sounds automatically. Instead, sound recordings are edited manually for pre-produced animations or triggered automatically in interactive settings. The former is labor intensive and inflexible, while the latter produces awkward, repetitive results. This situation is a serious obstacle to building realistic, interactive simulations (whether for entertainment, training, or other applications), which require sound to be compelling,. In this research the PIs will begin filling this broad void by pursuing fundamental advances in computational methods while solving several particularly challenging sound rendering problems. The goal is to produce some of the first viable methods in this area, upon which many more can be built. Successful implementation of this program will fundamentally transform our relationship with our increasingly convincing simulated realities, because for the first time we will be able to hear them as well as see them. To these ends, the PIs will develop fundamental algorithms that address the problems of simulating the vibrations that cause sound and computing the sound field produced by those vibrations….

This latter research, to me, sounds very much like just the kind of basic science that can trigger technological innovations that will, in turn, create jobs. Isn’t that what we want the government funding?

More generally, why does Rep. Smith think that this approach–let’s call it the “citizens Googling” method–is a good way of evaluating research grants, as opposed to the merit-based peer review system?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Conservatives and Science

Comments (38)

  1. Barney Grubbs

    Maybe Smith is worried because Amaral’s models could be used to rank the effectiveness of congress-folk?

  2. Because this is not really about evaluating research grants. These are chump change in the national budget and the efforts of the many that have come before him to attack specific NIH projects are illustrative. They do things that don’t even make any sense like mention specific existing *funding years* of proposals. They know that this is never going to really happen.

    It is all about playing to an anti-science constituency and rah-rahing up votes and contributions. Pure politics, nothing policy oriented about it.

    Still, it has a negative effect overall by encouraging yet more disdain for science so it is a good thing to talk about as part of the right wing war on science.

  3. He isn’t thinking at all, beyond wanting to shit-stir and make political noise. There’s a chance he’s as slow as Palin, or as ill-educated as Christine O’Donnel (mice with human brains? SRSLY?). He might have an agenda, like the AG of VA. No matter what, he’s making political noise though, and it’s likely that’s all he cares about.

  4. Lindsay

    I hate to say this, but almost every time I read this blog it makes me want to give up working in science. Through no fault of the authors.

  5. I’ll go further… I’m guessing they’ll make a play – when they get a flood of Tea Partiers ranting on wasteful studies of Evolution, Stem Cells, Climate, etc etc. – to defund every subject that their narrow ideology demands never be researched again.

    The people will have spoken, after all.

  6. How many iterations of making intellectuals the enemy can we go through in 10 years before we come up with a plan to combat it? It’s the worst kind of faux-populism here.

    “This latter research, to me, sounds very much like just the kind of basic science that can trigger technological innovations that will, in turn, create jobs. Isn’t that what we want the government funding?” <- This is the key. Turn the research around on the attackers, communicate it to them and the public in terms they are forced to support.

    Also, self-promotion: http://wp.me/pZ8Nd-3A

  7. Bigby

    So, let me get this straight…there’s a bottomless well full of money to fund any form of research that might remotely be considered scientific?? I applaud the effort to reduce spending. You sit in your little ivory tower contemplating the state of the universe while I give half my income away to various state, federal, and local governments. And, no, I don’t care if these are individually a drop in the bucket. I’ve used the same argument on you regarding global warming — that the efforts outlined won’t make any difference — and everyone screams that you have to start somewhere. Well, we have to start reducing government spending. THese may be meritorious studies from a scientific viewpoint, but are they going to return in value what they cost? Me, I’d cut off all spending on research and put a stringent qualification process in place. Demonstrate how your research helps humanity in some sense that makes the investment worthwhile.
    Spending must be reduced, it’s that simple, or this country is in serious jeopardy. And since no one wants to touch the sacred cows of medicare and social security — it’ll have to be cut somewhere else.

  8. Bigby, you’re not reasoning this through.

    A) They have been through a stringent review process, and by people qualified to review them
    B) The NSF does demand you justify the wider merit/social applicability of your work
    C) NSF funding is negligible compared to, for example, defense spending.

    Attacking NSF and it’s grantees will make *no difference* to the national deficit or your taxes.

    Of course, as scientists, we’re concerned about cuts in science spending. However, it doesn’t take much thought to reason out the process and see what’s really going on. There is an agenda here: attack science to make it easier to discredit “science” so as to push ideological motives. And furthermore create a smoke screen that focuses voters attention away from where most of the money really goes – the defense budget and budget add-ons.

  9. “Cut off all spending on research”?
    Bigby’s conversion of the United States of America to a Taliban controlled science-hating theocracy will be much closer to complete.

    Sigh… same tired arguments all over again. Tideliar, don’t bother reasoning – it’s kinda clear Bigby’s got the teahadist mythology ingrained in him. And if you frak with a right-winger’s mythology, they just get really freaking pissy.

  10. Bigby

    Tideliar – you have valid arguments but it still comes down to starting somewhere. I’m all for reducing defense spending too. But nothing should be sacred at this time.
    Scott – There used to be a saying that as soon as the other guy starts insulting you that means you won. You can’t come up with reasoned argument so you call me names. And yet you’ll claim, somehow, that you have a moral or intellectual superiority. Pathetic.

  11. V.O.R.

    You’re being very ungracious, Scott. Once you pare away Bigby’s hyperbole you’re left with a perfectly reasonable post. (Silence is golden.)

  12. Bigby, why not start with the two largest elephants in the room (especially if nothing is sacred) … Social Security and Medicare. Right there, between those two, is a third of our annual budget.

  13. If they want to save money on research, how about starting with the The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which gets over $120 million dollars a year?

    http://nccam.nih.gov/about/offices/od/directortestimony/0308.htm

  14. are they going to return in value what they cost?
    In aggregate, yes. The trouble with science is that it is not entirely predictable. So there will be many studies that never end up with a clearly defined benefit, cost-wise or otherwise. And yet other studies will absolutely be critical to massive cost-savings on health or product development…or spur entire new industries in the future. Classic investment, in other words.

    Me, I’d cut off all spending on research and put a stringent qualification process in place.

    Yeah, this is what we already have, if you mean restore that funding based on ‘stringent qualification’. Perhaps what you mean is that you would like to substitute *your* qualifications for those of people who are in fact stringently qualified in each research domain?

  15. ThomasL

    Don’t take the insults personally Bigby.

    Most in here are just getting their first real lesson in economics and world politics. Remember most in here have never seen anything close to “bad” in this country (they all think the little hiccup’s we’ve had over the past 25 years is what “bad” looks like – wait tell they see what it looks like when the collapse has been going on more than a decade…). I tried to point out to them over a year ago that things in the world were (are) getting dicey and that deep, widespread social unrest was stirring – we have a historical record of what tends to result from this type of thing (without exception so far in fact).

    They laughed.

    Now we have outright riots in Europe over “austerity” (and wait tell that is forced upon us here…) and tuition increases. Does anyone seriously think Ireland and Greece are going to stay peaceful in this process? Especially when their very sovereignty is being tested? A year ago they were all sure education was too sacred a thing to get the axe the way it is all over the country… and social chaos and political fallout? Never gonna happen – I mean that is such an old world fuddy duddy way to see things and we are oh so much more advanced now…

    Reality – can’t wait to see how well these “enlightened” ones handle it.

    Somehow pointing out where we are and the truly devastating choices we are about to make over the next few years concerning our social situation (paying for the boomers retirement is high on the list of things that ain’t gonna happen – mathematically impossible… think about what that will mean) goes right over their heads… They are worried about 40 years down the road – there is no guarantee we’ll make it that long.

  16. “If they want to save money on research, how about starting with the The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which gets over $120 million dollars a year?”

    The President’s toilet paper costs $120 million a year. Drop in a drop in a bucket. This isn’t a serious funding argument in the first place, it’s an ideological wedge being driven between science and fiscal responsibility to provide another angle of attack on climate and other science. Cutting funding like this is like putting a little less cream cheese on your bagel and calling it a diet.

    The apocalyptic turn to the comments is nice, though. Very fun reading.

  17. Sundance

    I love some of the grand cabal and conspiracy rants above but what you have is nothing more than a congressman who just watched his Dem colleagues get their asses handed to them in November for spending that did not create jobs and a growing awareness that debt is bad for their kids, which makes Smith nervous about 2012. Smith is setting himself up for reelection and is looking for something to hang his hat on. Nothing new there in politics. Now Smith might be using this ” you matter to me little guy” moment to connect to his voters because of the backlash towards a few of the “Rock Star” pop culture high profile activist scientist and he may be leveraging the disconnect with the common man that may exist (it worked against Russ Fiengold right?). I think my view is valid when you consider that the reason Mooney is perceived as such a valuable commodity by the science community is because he was smart enough to recognize the disconnect and creative enough to profit from it by making it a teachable moment. So simply put, Smith has kicked Humpty Dumpty off the wall to make political hay and now since all the kings horses and all the kings men have failed, it’s time to call Mooney in to try and put Humpty Dumpty back together again. :*)

  18. Josh

    “We have to start somewhere.” So let’s start by slashing the tiny sliver of the budget that goes toward fostering the technological and medical advances that have driven our economy over the last 30 years and will continue to do so for the next 30 years? Bigby– I’m not denying that we’re in a bad fiscal state. But flailing around cutting whatever niblets will score political points (regardless of the rationale or consequences) seems like a terrible way to go about solving the problem.

    This is to say nothing of the fact that if global warming goes unchecked, the deficit will be the least of our problems. Cutting investment in clean tech and climate research will cost us exponentially in the (not so distant) future.

  19. Scott of MN

    I’m perfectly willing to cut the so-called sacred cows of SS and Medicare because their trajectories are completely unsustainable in the long run.

    Speaking as a fairly conservative person politically, I am also willing to look at the defense budget so long as we do not compromise national security. To me, that is the first function of the national government.

    But as far as these cuts to scientific research go, this would be penny-wise and pound foolish as this sort of research has fueled American prosperity for decades.

    That being said, Chris I am concerned that the people who are doing this research are not doing a good job of communicating the value of what they are doing when they choose names that make it easy for others to not understand or refuse to see the value in what the scientists are really doing.

  20. SLC

    Re Bigby @ #9

    One of the problems that the congressman is quite obviously totally ignorant of is that it is difficult to judge the value of basic research before hand. One of the examples I like to cite is a paper describing research conducted by Albert Einstein which appeared in a Swiss physics journal in, I believe, 1908. This paper, which didn’t attract much attention at the time was on the subject of stimulated emission from atomic nuclii. It was arguably the most important paper Einstein ever published, at least for its contribution to technological development. The paper predicted that stimulated nuclear transitions could produce highly focused narrow beams of almost monochromatic electromagnetic radiation. This is known today as the laser, one of the most important technological advances of the 20th century. No one could have predicted such advances when Einstein began his research in his spare time as an employee of the Swiss Patent Office.

  21. Sean McCorkle

    @21
    I am concerned that the people who are doing this research are not doing a good job of communicating the value of what they are doing when they choose names that make it easy for others to not understand or refuse to see the value in what the scientists are really doing.

    Bingo. Smith and his ilk are predatory viruses; the researchers and funding agencies would do well to immunize themselves against this kind of attack through better and more thorough public outreach.

  22. ThomasL

    SLC (@22)

    Yes, amazing how progress (perhaps some of the most important in a couple centuries) happened even when governmental spending on such was a sorry pittance in comparison to today.

    Yet all we hear is life will be over if we regain control over the spending part of the equation. Just mentioning that we have a serious and unsustainable spending habit in *EVERY* area of endeavor sends everyone vested in that area over the edge. In this example we get the “they are anti-science!” gang riled up and going strong. Except the *vast* majority have nothing against science at all. Setting affordable priorities does not equate to being negative.

    And I really wonder how well most of you did in logic. You all do realize the same arguments you are making for experimental research – “one never knows what experiment will lead to what break through development…” are even more effective in reverse, don’t you? I.E. -> “as we have no clue what research will lead to a breakthrough there is no point in filtering it through experts at all as they are as clueless about such and what may lead to what as the rest of us.”

    As I said in here a few times in the past year – you had all best start really figuring out what is important because you can be damn sure *everything* is about to go under the microscope as our “leaders” leave no stone unturned in their quest for “finding” available cash to deal with the countries immediately pressing issues. Politicians have no interest in a few decades down the road (why they always kick the can) – they care about getting reelected. Current events dictate a more pressing concern in their mind than that of science…

    And this is what passes as highly educated today…

  23. Sean McCorkle

    @24 and to other conservatives who defend Smith’s bullying of NSF:

    NSF’s budget is MINISCULE compared to military spending. The federal 2010 total budget was 3.55 trillion, NSF is maybe 7 billion, which is about 0.2% of the total outlay. 1/500th !!

    If Smith isn’t anti-science, then why is he focusing on a microscopic part of the budget, which, even if it were ENTIRELY eliminated, would still have no major effect on the national deficit. If he (and his defenders) were truly worried about the deficit and overspending, then why isn’t he focusing his attention on the big enchiladas, military and social safety net?

    The most I’ve seen in comments here amounts to “yeah, well maybe we’ll consider some military cuts too, if we have too” – Don’t pussyfoot around – hell, THATS the place to START looking if you’re serious about cutting spending. Here – look at the Boneyards in Tucson – F4s, F16s, bombers and god knows what else, AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE! Fighter jets can easily cost over $100 million, some bombers half a billion or more! And what are these doing? Collecting dust, thats what! Nothing!

    Why isn’t Smith putting up a web site with current military spending programs, and asking his constituents how many F22s and Ospreys they think we really need? Where is the outcry there? Why isn’t the outrage in proportion to the fraction of the federal budget? (roughly 1/3 or 1 trillion dollars)

    For comparison, a large Synchrotron Light Source costs on the same order as one or two military aircraft. The sheer amount of biomedical, solid state physics, and nanotechnological research that has arisen from even one of these is too great to list in detail here.

    Science and Technology R&D funding has been the goose that has laid golden eggs for this country for the last 70 years, and developments that can be linked directly back to things like the space program, accelerator physics, etc have made us safer, richer and given us countless medical cures and shows every sign of continuing to put us on the same path.

    We have enjoyed a safe, well-defended country and access to good medicine in large part BECAUSE of our advanced Science and Technology. That has been the underpinning in all too many ways for our unsurpassed national defense and health care system and all sorts of other areas as well – weather forecasting, environmental health etc. It is therefore critical that we continue a healthy research program in the US, and yes that means funding it at some reasonable level. That 1/500th of the budget is far too precious to all of us to thoughtlessly do away with.

  24. Mark

    If you make drastic cuts in the research budget so that talented scientists have little chance of getting a grant, they will do one of two things: leave science or leave for a different country. We are nowhere near that kind of thinking yet. But that possibility is something to keep in mind.

  25. ThomasL

    Sean (@25)

    I’m not defending anything. It is a large chunk of what I studied. I am under no illusions about what is transpiring around the world. When the rest of the world is hacking and slashing their budgets, where is anyone going to run to? Leave this country for where (as in which country is it that you think has piles lying around looking for a reason to spend it?)?

    As usual constructive criticism is apparently an unknown round these parts. You can either stay ignorant of the socialpoliticaleconomic realities that are being reshaped world wide – or you can understand what is going on (and that there is no stopping it – such things are far “bigger” then most realize) and try your damndist to prepareadjustdefend that which is truly needed instead of “everything and the kitchen sink” arguments that you all throw out.

    Alienating a vast cross section of the public even more really isn’t beneficial.

  26. Student of History

    How short your memories or how impoverished your study of history. The congressman is merely replaying an old Democrat script. Senator William Proxmire, of unhappy memory, was famous for his public dressing down of a variety of federal fundees, under the aegis of his “Golden Fleece” award. Many peer reviewed grantees felt his liberal might. But the liberal memory is so selective. Hmmm! What is it that we learn from history?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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