Citizen-Googling? You Can't Be Serious.

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | December 4, 2010 5:47 pm

Chris has already explained how Republican House science committee member Adrian Smith is calling on the public to search through government research grants helping to “identify grants that are wasteful or [not] a good use of taxpayer dollars.” I have another suggestion: Let’s place everyday citizens behind surgeons shoulders to advise doctors on where to cut, with the authority to stop the procedure when they disagree. Nonsense right? Smith’s “YOUCUT” is just as ridiculous.

Picture 8

As Alice once said, “It would be so nice if something would make sense for a change.”

mad tea party


Comments (25)

  1. CW

    No, GOP, we elected you to make those decisions. Do you want everyone to tell you how to vote on every bill? Come on.

    Since the GOP has no ideas on how to cut spending, their putting the responsibility on the people.

  2. Matt

    Are you comparing the workings of Congress to surgery? And don’t we already have this with lobbyists?

    I doubt if having ordinary citizens keep an eye on the workings of Congress is that bad of an idea. Certainly they could not be worse than having a William Proxmire in the Senate.

  3. ThomasL

    Having the ordinary citizen keep an eye on government is how our system was designed. In fact doing such is part of something called “your civic duty”…

  4. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the importance of an “informed citizenry.” I have a problem when the information source is a Glenn Beck or a Rush Limbaugh, neither of whom seems to understand science or economics.

  5. Mark

    When will these people come after your grant? When will they attack your proposal on national television? These are the questions scientists are asking themselves now.

    I count many William Proxmires in the Republican Party now. I actually think this began with Bobby Jindal’s State of the Union rebuttal in which he attacked volcano monitoring as wasteful spending.

  6. Thomas and Wes:

    I think the comparison was supposed to be between having citizens supervise surgery and having citizens monitor scientists. After all, research grants are awarded by executive branch agencies, not the legislature. Other than the occasional earmark, Congress only puts money in a pot to be distributed by a federal agency under the advice of a panel of scientists.

    The big problem with this initiative is that most citizens don’t have the information to fully evaluate the usefulness of the grants, and often go only by some phrase in the title of the research proposal that subjectively strikes them as unfit for government funding. Unfortunately, they’ve been trained by Republican politicians to do this since the days of William Proxmire and his Golden Fleece awards.

  7. Georg

    Where is the problem?
    Of course citizens will vote on any spending
    or tax exemption…

  8. Kevin

    It’s taxpayer’s money that’s funding these grants, no? Why can’t they say where their money should be spent? Maybe it’s not a good idea to have people outside of the field choosing what gets funded, but then maybe it’s not a good idea to have people outside the field forced into funding it. If you’re taking money from my pocket, I’d hope I’d at least get some say in how it gets spent.

  9. ThomasL

    Well Kevin (@8),

    I’ve had several serious operations. I’ve “changed” doctors (you can read that as fired them) because we did not agree on treatment courses. I don’t pretend to be a medical doctor in any sense of the word – that doesn’t mean I’m ignorant, illiterate and mute. If I wasn’t the one paying for it I would obviously have far fewer choices in things.

    and you know, seeing as I’m paying and it’s my body I figure I have a right to say yes or no – in fact seeing as I’m paying I don’t figure, I know I have a right to say yes or no.

    I think most of us have some idea how government funding gets done – and as I worked for a branch of state government I actually have a very good idea of how funding and all the joys of getting it work. But then it is other people’s money we wanted to spend, so the hoops where more than justified in my mind.

    See previous point about logic of the argument “don’t know what research is important” and how we never know where a breakthrough is going to occur. If such is the case (and it is repeated often enough in here that the scientists must believe such to be true), the argument for authority is even less valuable then normal.

    I have never in any post anywhere indicated that I think there is any such thing as “silly science” or wasted research. That does not however mean that there is enough funding to follow every whim we have. There are going to be cuts ( That is our reality *today*.

    Again, I would advise figuring out how to work within that constraint as it will be placed regardless.

    Kevin @ 10 –

    They don’t understand such reasoning outside their own checking accounts. Somewhere between it leaving the tax payers pocket and showing up in a grant it has become the governments money – apparently the tax payer had nothing to do with it…

  10. AR

    Chris, I think you’d be doing the discussion a service if you explain to folks how most research grants are awarded, the sacred PEER REVIEW PROCESS. A scientist’s funding proposal to, say, the National Science Foundation, is carefully reviewed by a panel of experts in their field (their peers). The process is as objective, impartial, and strictly science-based as is humanly possible.

    It is part of a senior scientist’s duty to serve on these review panels, which take a great deal of effort. We take peer review seriously and it’s vital to modern Western science. Mess with it and you risk everything.

  11. ThomasL

    Sheril & Chris – Goldie (@13) is advertising for shoes….

  12. Chris Mooney

    @14 not any more

  13. Rob

    If we stopped studying the Earth, we wouldn’t know it was warming. That would solve this “climate change” problem! And volcanoes! Why would someone study volcanoes? It’s not like we have any volcanoes in the United States or like a volcano is going to erupt some place and cause problems with airplanes! And Gila monster saliva. Why would someone study Gila monster saliva?

    (Captioning for the humor impaired: An important drug for diabetics called “Byetta” was developed from a peptide in Gila monster saliva. The problem is, unless you understand the subject, a lot of research sounds stupid but isn’t.)

    Solution to the Fermi Paradox: Evolving something that’s smart enough to build a technological civilization is easy. Evolving something that’s smart enough to not destroy itself is impossible.

  14. Sean McCorkle

    ThomasL’s medical comment is an excellent example:

    I’ve had several serious operations. I’ve “changed” doctors (you can read that as fired them) because we did not agree on treatment courses. I don’t pretend to be a medical doctor in any sense of the word – that doesn’t mean I’m ignorant, illiterate and mute. If I wasn’t the one paying for it I would obviously have far fewer choices in things.
    and you know, seeing as I’m paying and it’s my body I figure I have a right to say yes or no – in fact seeing as I’m paying I don’t figure, I know I have a right to say yes or no.

    This makes it seem like its simply a contract between you and your doctors and your money. Those doctors didn’t just pop out of nowhere nor did they just pop out of a medical school. Nor did the medicine or procedures or equipment which they employed on you. They are only a part of the large tapestry, in the background, of advanced the science and technology we enjoy.

    Quite likely you received anesthesia for the surgery, and underwent some sort of testing or scanning to perform or aid the diagnosis, no? Perhaps some antibiotics afterwards, or follow-up medicines?

    Those drugs didn’t just pop up in some pharmaceutical company’s lab someplace – those companies HEAVILY leverage the pre-existing, largely taxpayer-funded science infrastructure which has been built and maintained for decades or more. Aside from the clear connection to basic research in chemistry and biochemistry, much pharmaceutical development heavily depends on molecular structures obtained from crystallography performed at an X-ray synchrotron, for example. Same goes for enzyme testing techniques (i.e blood tests). Will the typical citizen tempted to vote to cut a synchrotron or x-ray photon grant make THAT connection to their medicine?

    The best medicine has come and will continue to come through a comprehensive, basic, understanding of biological processes and metabolic pathways at the cellular and intra-cellular level. This research will inevitably involve some in-vivo experiments which are harmful to the organism if carried out, and thus are not allowed on humans, so a variety of other model organisms are used as substitutes. How many people took Sarah Palin to heart when she publicly ridiculed research on fruit flies? How many would recognize the value to us in studying something such as kidney disease in mice?

    Increasingly advanced computers allow the statistical analysis that the AMA uses to evaluate safety and efficacy of drugs and other treatments – the research, going far back, which allowed for the creation and improvements of those computers. How many tax-angry citizens would make that connection and perhaps see the value of some abstract physics or chemistry grants which might lead to the next generation in computing? Or see a grant title of statistical jargon and realize that it might lead to better evaluations of medical treatments?

    I’m just hitting on a few of the connections in this example. One could go on and on detailing some of the history of medical scanning technologies and what led to their creation. I believe your surgery story was to make the point of individual choice, but I’m saying something else: that you, as are we all, are fortunate to even HAVE many of those choices at ALL, thanks to a healthy national support of research and development in MANY fields, applied or abstract, beyond the obvious medical choices.

    This research & knowledge infrastructure is very much for the common good and is extremely valuable. Uninformed choices about defunding it would almost certainly jeopardize our future. It doesn’t cost all that much either, on the national scale of things, and it should be seen as a great bargain, for what we’ve gotten out of it.

  15. Roybe

    I can only agree with the writer. There’s basically 2 types of research, applied and basic. It’s easy for grant purposes to suggest that a proposal entitled “Somatic cell response to injection site irritation with HIV vaccine” should get money while a proposal entitled “Opossum abortive response to injury” would, not get funding and probably laughs and stares from the citizenry.

    However, without basic research the advances in applied research take longer and might never occur as discoveries in basic research tend to change the status quo with discoveries that are ‘counter-intuitive’.

    Leave funding decisions for science be decided by scientists, leave the general population out of it please!

  16. The Gregarious Misanthrope

    Next maybe we can get all those Xbox warriors to review our military operations in Afghanistan to suggest a better course of action.
    Yeah, that’s not going to work either.

  17. ThomasL

    Sean (@16)

    I see nothing in your post to contest. As I said, I actually like science (even the really off the wall research I find to be interesting – but then I never stop asking questions…).

    And I follow your point – and again as I was paying for it I had numerous options and choices. I know others who had seriously more restrictive insurance and had far, far fewer choices. It’s just the way it works (always and likely for always). As long as science is dependent on tax payer support there will be ups and downs in its funding and arguments over the best way to spend others money.

    Roybe (@17)

    I think everyone is missing what is really going on. There isn’t going to be any attack on the WAY things get funded (at least not directly…) – they use crap like this to go “see, they are obviously getting too much money so we can just put less in the pot to be distributed and force them to make mature decisions…”
    It’s called politics. They are looking for a reason to cut (and they have to cut, see previous link as a heads up…). When there is a political necessity any excuse works. They are looking for one (excuse), and not just here. The political necessity is those who get how governments are financed are not pleased with what is ripping around the global sovereign debt markets…

    The simple fact is everyone is going to be going on a bit of a diet (hopefully not a starvation one, though these things work out in interesting ways…). Life goes on, welcome to the economic cycle.

    Chris @ 14 –

    Thanks – didn’t think that belonged here!

  18. ….and they have to cut…

    Strange how they always have to cut the things they don’t want, saving a few hundred thousand here on a research grant or a million there on school reconstruction.

    But when it comes to pushing through tax cuts for their political allies, the only question is “should it be $4 trillion or only $3 trillion?” And they don’t hesitate to run the wars on the credit card.

  19. Sheril,

    Over at Big Think, pegged to Dan Vergano’s article on this topic today, I have a different take on this debate.

    What these cyclical tit-for-tat rhetorical salvos obscure is the need for a very important discussion about why science is considered to have special status when it comes to hard decisions in balancing government spending in an era of massive deficits, a historically depressed economy, and a public desperately needing immediate help from social programs.

    Whether or not lawmakers should interfere with peer-review decisions on what research agencies should fund and whether or not science should have steadily consistent if not linear growth in funding are two separate questions. The former deserves defending and the latter is one that is important for science organizations to join with others in deliberating.

  20. In theory I have no problem with having taxpayers review where their money is spent. people have a right to know where taxpayer dollars are going. Take science out of the equation for a moment and the questions seem entirely consistent with Congress’ oversight responsibility. What if we were looking for redundancy in federal spending? For example, I think there’s an “Economic Development Initiative” in the dept of Housing and Urban Development and an “Economic Development Administration” in the dept of Commerce. Do we really need both? Maybe we do, because they look at economic development from different perspectives and do slightly different things. But isn’t that worth consideration?

    Now bring it back to science. Do we need a gazillion different studies all looking at cancer? Sure we do, and we have a group of people who keep track of all the studies and make sure that we’re not wasting money. And we shouldn’t shy away from saying so. Frankly we should go on offense a bit. Why does Smith want to keep you ignorant and sick? or stories with headlines like “Smith to scientists: stop fighting cancer.” Put Smith on the defensive and a lot of this goes away.

    Obviously Smith wants you to have some facts but not others. The silly-sounding title to the grant without the explanation why it’s necessary. I don’t think scientists or anyone who gets public money should feel uncomfortable explaining why what they do is important. And I don’t think it’s that hard to explain things like when it comes to finding cures for cancer or diabetes or AIDS, we should leave no stone unturned.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting if the defense department were held to such scrutiny? Or better yet, Smith’s campaign spending? Wouldn’t Smith’s contributors like to know how much of their money went to, say, parties for other contributors or if Smith is paying relatives for “consulting” services.

  21. ThomasL

    Jinchi (@20)

    Well, I’m pretty positive *everyone* is going to freak over the cuts during the next 5-10 years while we get our economic and social systems back into some semblance of balance. There is no way we can continue basing troops in over 140 countries just as we will not be able to continue funding anything else at the levels many have come to view as “normal”. There will be no sacred cows as the real forces behind economics continually force adjustments. Now, you can either adjust in an orderly fashion, or adjust in chaos. That is the only decision we have (rather like a military retreat – it can be catastrophic or successful). The bond markets are already starting to do their thing (we haven’t seen them vengeful in the U.S. in over 30 years – watch & learn). For a roadmap of normal progression I’d keep an eye on Europe to see how it progresses in our current rendition through everything that was believed sacred in prior, more wealthy times….

    I think you confuse Republican with Conservative. They are not the same, and have been progressively less similar to one another all the way back to Nixon (remember something called the “Gold Window”? I’m sure you remember Roe VS. Wade – they happened about the same time and combined to forever split the party into fiscal conservative and social conservative – fiscal conservatives have been marginalized since Reagan… They are gaining their strength back…)

    I would suggest you read a book called “Human Action” (free – It will give your intellect quite a bit more to work with in this area of thought (and fill you in on the major competing economic theory of the last century).

    Michael (@21)


  22. Brian Too

    I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s easy to suggest cuts. Those suggestions will always be to cut programs that are far removed from the suggester’s area of interest. Don’t cut “my” stuff, cut someone else’s.

    Suppose you are a stay at home parent. You are likely very interested in family and parental programs, schools and so forth. Don’t cut those you’d say, we need more! Cut those academic, esoteric programs that don’t support people.

    Suppose you are a business person. You’d likely be a devotee of economic development, low taxes (on business), and so on. Don’t cut investment support, incubators, business libraries and schools and the like, we need more! Cut all those social programs that don’t grow the economy.

    Suppose you are a military person. You’d probably be a big fan of weapons programs, military recruiting, post-service pensions and supports, that kind of thing. Don’t cut those, it’s a dangerous world! We need more! Cut somewhere else.

    That is going to be a challenge in weeding through all these suggestions. They are prone to a localized point of view.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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