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NSF Research Funding Under the Microscope

Feb 12 2014, 6:32am CST | by

NSF Research Funding Under the Microscope
 
 

In a commentary last year in the journal Science, a British bureaucrat denounced “attacks” on social science research by American politicians and others.  Perhaps worried that skepticism about his field might spread across the pond, Paul Boyle, who is at his country’s Economic and Social Research Council, was particularly exercised by congressional limitations on the U.S. National Science Foundation’s funding of political science research.

However, his naïve, circular reasoning begged several questions, including that social science projects are inherently as worthy as other research fields.

Boyle decried “political interference in the delivery of science,” in favor of leaving funding decisions to experts, who are “best placed to judge whether proposed research is novel, methodologically rigorous, and likely to succeed.”

However, when it comes to the less precise, soft social sciences, this strategy is unpersuasive, rather like discussing the Thanksgiving menu with the “expert” turkeys.  Self-regard and self-interest will prevail.

But leaving aside Boyle’s sophistry, are his criteria – novel, rigorous and likely to succeed — for funding a study sufficient?  A study of whether you get wet if you go out in the rain could fulfill them, but taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for it.  And what if supposedly expert peer-review fails systematically, so that much of what is funded is shoddy or trivial?

Are my concerns exaggerated?  I wish they were.

Too often the U.S. National Science Foundation shortchanges American taxpayers.  In 2011, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), who is also a physician, released a report, “NSF Under the Microscope,” that provides a revealing analysis of the agency’s funding.  Coburn’s report identified a number of social and political science projects that will make most Americans, scientists and nonscientists alike, shake their heads.  They include studies of how to ride a bike; when dogs became man’s best friend; whether political views are genetically predetermined; whether parents choose trendy baby names; the best time to buy a ticket to a sold out sporting event; and why the same teams always seem to dominate the NCAA basketball playoffs.

Coburn’s study noted that “only politicians appear to benefit from other NSF studies, such as research on what motivates individuals to make political donations, how politicians can benefit from Internet town halls…and how politicians use the Internet.”  (Such projects led Congress to prohibit NSF from funding political science research except for grants specifically identified by the foundation’s director as “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”)

More recently, Coburn has called attention to other trivial or inappropriate uses of NSF funds, including paying the expenses of participants in annual Michigan snowmobile competitions through 2015, depictions of animals in National Geographic magazine from 1888 to 2008, and the development of a new website to evaluate the trustworthiness of other websites.

My own experience confirms the thrust of Coburn’s observations.  Some of the projects I encountered were of the overtly ridiculous variety.  I once endured a presentation by a University of Virginia professor about an NSF-funded study of the “ethics” of nanotechnology research.  She conducted interviews with nanotechnology researchers in their offices, and part of her “research methodology” involved recording what kinds of screen savers were on their computers.  The study concluded: “Narrative is an indispensable device for formulation of theory about scientists [sic] perspectives regarding the moral and social implications of nanotechnology,” and “alternative pedagogies are necessary to fully explore and develop a working ethical framework for analysis of nanotechnology.”  This gobbledygook sounds as though it’s of nano-value to society.

Some of the social science projects funded by NSF are less flagrant but real examples of waste or abuse.  For example, the agency has funded a series of “citizens technology forums,” at which previously uninformed, ordinary Americans were brought together to solve a thorny question of technology policy.

According to the NSF’s abstract of the project, participants were to “receive information about that issue from a range of content-area experts, experts on social implications of science and technology, and representatives of special interest groups”; this was supposed to enable them to reach consensus “and ultimately generate recommendations.”

The project, first funded in 2002 to support two panels and expanded thereafter, called for eight more panels comprised of people “representative of the local population.”  Their deliberations were to be overseen by a research team “composed of faculty in rhetoric of science, group decision-making, and political science,” who were charged to test both “an innovative measure of democratic deliberation” and “also political science theory, by investigating relationships between gender, ethnicity, lower socioeconomic status and increases in efficacy and trust in regulators.”

In one of these, the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University and its collaborators at North Carolina State University held an NSF-funded citizens technology forum on the topic of nanotechnology and human enhancement.  The organizers selected “from a broad pool of applicants a diverse and roughly representative group of 74 citizens to participate at six geographically distinct sites across the country.”

Participants were informed by “a 61-page background document — vetted by experts — to read prior to deliberating.”  They produced a hodgepodge of conclusions and recommendations, including “concern over the effectiveness of regulations” and “reduced certainty about the benefits of human enhancement technologies” but wanted “the government to guarantee access to them if they prove too expensive for the average American.” What a surprise: The participants lacked even a rudimentary understanding of the risks and benefits but wanted the government to provide them with entitlements so they could avail themselves of the beneficial products of nanotechnology!

The output of such citizens’ technology forums illustrates that such undertakings have limitations in both theory and practice.  Getting policy recommendations on obscure and complex technical questions from groups of citizen non-experts is like going from your cardiologist’s office to a café, explaining to the waitress the therapeutic options for your chest pain, and asking her whether you should have the angioplasty or just take medication.

Some experts, like some research disciplines, are more equal than others, especially in times of fiscal belt-tightening.  (The reason may be self-evident: Think back to college — did the smartest students in your class choose to major in subjects like Sociology or Rhetoric of Science?)  Boyle believes that only experts in a given field can judge the merits of research proposals in that field.  That may be true for evaluating certain nuances, but you don’t have to be a veterinarian to know a horse’s backside when you see one, and far too much social science research is the equivalent.

My expertise is in medicine and molecular biology, but I can see that many research projects funded by NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate are far less rigorous, essential and relevant to the nation’s needs than those of the organization’s other directorates, which include engineering, geosciences, and mathematical and physical sciences.  Grants in the latter disciplines have gone to myriad worthy projects, including state-of-the-art telescopes used by astronomers, new methods for sorting cells and fractionating DNA and RNA, and the creation of “cyberinfrastructure” that is already revolutionizing plant biology.  Since 1951, 201 Nobel Prize laureates have received funding from the NSF, and more than two-thirds of all American laureates since then have received NSF funding.

At a time when a lot of potentially important, research is going unfunded because of budgetary constraints, why should we permit NSF – or any federal agency, for that matter – to squander money on inferior projects?  We’re smarter than that.  At least those of us who majored in physics, math, biology or engineering are.

Source: Forbes

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