USA Today on "Citizen Googling" and NSF

By Chris Mooney | December 6, 2010 12:23 pm

Dan Vergano at USA Today has done a piece about congressman Adrian Smith’s attempt–which we’re now calling “citizen Googling” here at “The Intersection”–to involve members of the public in determining which peer-reviewed NSF grants are a “waste.” Vergano sets the endeavor in the context of misguided attacks on government research that go all the way back to Sen. William Proxmire’s infamous “Golden Fleece” awards.

As Vergano notes, it pretty much always seems that when some politician slams a government scientific grant, the research actually turns out to be quite important and the pol is simply misinterpreting its meaning. (Hmmm, I wonder why that is?) Sure enough, that already appears to be the case with the two grants picked out by Smith. As Vergano reports:

So, as you might expect, when we asked the National Science Foundation about the two grants that Smith mentioned, we learned a little more about them.

For example, the soccer study turns out to be computer scientists studying how remotely connected teams form to conduct “nanoscience, environmental engineering, earthquake engineering, chemical sciences, media research and tobacco research.”

And the “breaking things” study turns out to be acoustics experts “pursuing fundamental advances in computational methods while solving several particularly challenging sound rendering problems,” so that the U.S. military, among others, can create more realistic combat simulators for troops.

“These aren’t about soccer research,” says the NSF’s Maria Zacharias. “All of these projects go through our very rigorous peer-review process,” she adds, part of what made the NSF the only one of 26 federal agencies to receive a “green” rating from the Bush administration in its initial rating of government management practices.

I really like one upshot of Vergano’s piece: If scientists don’t want their grants attacked in silly ways, it will help if they are able to get the word out about what they’re actually doing and why it really does matter. In other words, as grants come under fire, there will be a premium on good communication about your research.

I want to address another point that came up in the comments when I first posted about this.

I’m all for cutting back on wasteful government spending. I’m also in favor, incidentally, of getting the government more of the revenue it deserves–by, say, getting rid of massive fossil fuel industry tax subsidies that only hurt our economy in the long run, by discouraging clean energy investment.

But the fact is, if you seriously want to balance the budget, you don’t go looking to NSF–which, if it gets what it asks for in 2011, will receive just over $ 7 billion for that year. Total federal budget in 2010? $3.552 trillion. Total deficit? $ 1.171 trillion.

There are a thousand billions in a trillion. So NSF’s total 2011 budget request is less than 1 % of last year’s deficit.

And if NSF’s total budget is barely noticeable in the broad context of federal spending, the individual grants being singled out for attack are ridiculously inconsequential in that context. Consider a million dollar grant, for instance. There are a million millions in a trillion. So cutting such a grant would be addressing…less than one millionth of the deficit.

So to summarize: a) The criticisms of individual NSF studies always seems to misunderstand the research and its importance. And moreover: b) even if these studies were defunded (hell, even if NSF was entirely defunded!), that wouldn’t appreciably affect the budget or the deficit.

So what on Earth could the purpose of the exercise possibly be?

I’ll leave that to readers to sort out.

Comments (9)

  1. ThomasL

    Chris,

    You’ve been around politics. I have to believe you know as well as everyone else what it is really about.

    The world is broke. We’ve spent everything we have earned and everything our children and grandchildren will ever earn over the past 50 years trying to solve every form of social and world ill while simultaneously developing ourselves into a modern version of world empire (something so contrary to our beliefsvaluessystem it was bound to cause hell internally over time, like a slowly developing narcosis – and empires always die broke.). There are those who say both Russia and the U.S. went broke during the cold war, but no one told the U.S. and it is only now slowly dawning on the U.S. that it actually bankrupted them too…

    This puts the politicians in a bad spot. All they really want to do is get reelected (it’s their *JOB* – anyone here like being fired? Neither do they). They are going to have to cut like made (see point above), but will cut those things they have used to stay in power previously dead last (to both keep the hypocrisy as hidden as possible and because they’ve been using that stuff to get elected so the electorate thinks to cut that stuff is suicide – it’s what they have been told…). See point below about “democracy” as well – we are obviously in the “give them circuses” area of the curve. I.E. – cut anything and everything except what I am giving the serfs to keep reelecting me.

    Go after obscure, funny sounding stuff – the voters will go for that. If it sounds stupid it must be stupid (we’ve been well trained by sound bite television to think this way). The scientists, researchers, or whoever else gets hit in such thinking might be annoyed with being targeted, but they don’t vote for you.

    Target the real stuff – military, S.S., Medicaid – what are you, nuts? See main point of being a politician above. That isn’t going to get you reelected. Thus, such will not come to pass until such time as it is forced upon us (which means it will be far worse than otherwise as it will be at point of collapse…). If we see such spending go up I’d start to really worry, that would be an even worse sign that we really might want to get off this road…

    Still, the point of any politician is to get reelected (stay employed), collect greater power and influence -> then reap the rewards for doing such. In a “democracy” you get such by giving your constituents what they want (demand) – kind of like bribery (voting for what the government will do for me instead of voting for a government that will govern…). I put “democracy” in quotes because we aren’t one – we are a Representational Republic. What we have developing today is exactly what the founders warned about concerning democracy in fact…

    We say man has a nature and history rhymes for a reason. Our responses to such things have been remarkably universal over the centuries…

  2. Eric the Leaf

    ThomasL has a point. But it probably is really far worse. The industrial era of growth and expansion is over. We are now far past the point in which policy can be used to promote or technology used to acquire, a sustainable (the most overused term in the lexicon) course. The resources that have supported this unprecedented growth are almost all in or near their depletion phases and the ability of the environment to cleanse itself of environmental damage (just consider overfishing–never mind global warming or ocean acidification) has long been surpassed. It is nearly inconceivable that future growth, certainly without the physical resources to support it, will suffice to repay the greatest debt bubble in recorded history. A very long period of economic contraction is in the cards and the future will be characterized by energy scarcity. What it may look like decades from now is anybody’s guess. Since, even on this theoretically enlightened board, I see little evidence of a real understanding of human ecology or biophysical economics, I feel more confident than ever the proper course of action is to party on until the party’s over.

    Incidentally, ThomasL, one proximal cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union was our collusion with Saudi Arabia to undercut the main source of Soviet income. Oil.

  3. Flint

    We should expand this program to cover every area of government, and make the results BINDING. If you can get 50% of online respondents to vote against social security for someone, BAM they’re gone. Ditto for every government employee, and every Medicare procedure. Yes, this is small scale, but it all adds up. If we can save $5000 at a time, then we only need 140 million items to be cut to cancel out the latest tax cut for the super-rich.

  4. ThomasL

    Eric, yes – there were many combining things that helped the U.S.S.R. cry Uncle first – but it killed both sides. One is just taking longer to unwind itself (having reserve currency status & getting away with flipping off the world by closing the gold window helped…).

    And I hope people realize this works with *both* parties. Everyone has sacred cows, and everyone is happy as long as it is someone else’s cow getting beat on (watching the tax spectacle? Oops, I meant debate…).

    How the hell any of them (Dem or Rep.) got all of the younger folks to trust them again one iota after the 60’s & 70’s is beyond me. You’d have thought after the last 100 years people would have figured the game out… Guess that’s why colleges still need Political Science departments – apparently it isn’t blatantly obvious enough yet how it works. People (even well-educated ones) are far too willing to listen to the sound bites and ignore everything except their *one*personal issue (I guess a few of the more enlightened have two or three even).

  5. Eric the Leaf

    No argument TL. The rules are made up by decree. Fractional reserve banking, slamming closed the gold standard. Maybe since the depression it was thought possible to pay back the debt with the growth engine, driven by fossil fuel. That possibility now is ending. I like your term “unwind.” When speaking about the coming decades to my colleagues and students I use the phrase “the great unraveling.” It’s thermodynamics. We thought that economic law was in control, when it was physics all along.

    Some recommended reading: Richard Heinberg is coming out with his latest book, with the tentative title “The End of Growth,” in installments on his website. Richard’s talent is distilling complex and difficult topics, such as the oil and coal supply, placing them squarely in the context of human ecology, and making the subjects accessible. This time around, he tackles the economy. The articles so far are captivating reads; he is a talented writer.

    http://richardheinberg.com/221-economics-for-the-hurried

    http://richardheinberg.com/222-the-end-of-growth

  6. ThomasL

    Thanks Eric – will follow along with his writing. A complex topic to be sure. Wish more understood just how messed we let it get…

    Guess like resource depleation there are just things no one is willing to deal with until such time as there is literally no choice. It’s like we as a speciesworld economy have never played this game through before. Hell, my environmental politics class from 25 years ago started off with “lets get this straight. We have long since broken the ecological system. The only real question at this point is how long until it fails compleatly…”

    Guess it is easier to pretend surprise.

  7. Eric the Leaf

    TL,
    Sounds like you you learned your old lesson. I agree, few others have.

  8. Alice Popejoy

    It’s obvious why Republicans are staging this “YouCut Citizen Review” initiative. In recent years, they have given so much lip service to cutting the deficit and decreasing “wasteful” funding, that it would be political suicide not to do something about it.
    http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2010/12/us-public-asked-to-play-judge.html

    But the reality is, no one is willing to actually take action on cutting the deficit and reevaluate the billions of dollars going to high-stakes supporters like oil companies through DoD appropriations. No—instead, they will host a highly visible publicity stunt which appears to the average American to be a stand-up way of cutting unnecessary spending and engaging the public in meaningful decision-making. Warm fuzzies.

    Without getting into a discussion about the inability of most Americans to even pronounce, let alone be qualified to speculate on the importance of on-going scientific research, the idea that this initiative is doing anything other than cause problems is delusional. As you mentioned, Chris, even if they de-funded the entire NSF, it wouldn’t actually make a dent in the deficit, would cause jobs and important research programs to die, and at the end of the day no one would even realize what happened. Because the Republicans will get on Fox (Entertainment) News, patting themselves on the back about how responsive they are to the American people: “Oh, and don’t go blaming ME about the loss of jobs and important innovative research as a result….cutting that project was all Joe the Plumber’s idea!”

    I support the aforementioned notion: Put ALL government spending up for scrutiny by the American people. See how we feel about salaries for federal employees, military spending, and special interests Vs. education, health care, and scientific research. I guarantee the Republicans would all of a sudden find ways to discredit the qualifications of the American people to judge what is important vs. “wasteful” spending.

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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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