McCain and Coburn single out science as “waste”

In a report released Dec. 9, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., identify 100 projects funded by the stimulus package that they claim are wasteful government spending.  Among these projects are 14 research grants funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

McCain and Coburn’s report singles out 10 studies from the NSF.  Specifically, the report criticizes the use of stimulus funds to study the learning patterns of honey bees and to support educational programs that expose undergraduates to rainforest research.

The report also identifies four NIH grants as stimulus waste.  Two study the sexual habits of young people, while two others analyze the effects of drugs and alcohol on mice.

McCain and Coburn are participating in the disturbing practice of criticizing controversial or “silly” research for political gain.  Recently, U.S. Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, attacked particular NIH studies related to HIV, drugs and gun violence.  Earlier this year, Coburn introduced an amendment to the NSF appropriation bill that would have removed funding for political science research.

It is often easy to criticize basic science research because it seems esoteric, controversial or just plain “silly.”  Who cares how honeybees learn? What could possibly be the benefit of understanding the sexual habits of college students?

Each of grants detailed in the report were funded only after a rigorous review process.  The federal government relies on the peer-review process to identify and fund the best scientific research.

Composed of field experts, peer-review panels recognize the value of research when untrained observers cannot.  For example, as honeybees disappear from colony collapse disorder, our crops are at risk of having no bees to pollinate them.  Understanding their learning may help mediate the effects of honeybee declines.  Would McCain and Coburn have recognized the incredible potential of Alexander Fleming’s mold research?

It’s easy to take potshots at “silly” science for political gain.  But scientific breakthroughs require creativity that runs counter to our well-established preconceptions.  It’s time we freed scientists from playground-style ridicule and allowed them to innovate.

You can read more about the report on Politico and other news sources. The press release and full report can be found on McCain’s Senate Web site.

2 thoughts on “McCain and Coburn single out science as “waste”

  1. Pingback: The ChimpCam Project « Tiny Science

  2. We may be justified in rebutting McCain and Coburn’s critiques of individual research grants. But maybe we should do some soul-searching about the prevailing system in which a substantial fraction of the nation’s best scientific talent “takes in each other’s laundry”, i.e disseminates the results of basic research publications almost entirely within peer disciplinary media.

    Is the assumption that some mysterious force will extract valuable material from the mountain of research publication and achieve unpredictable but significant advances that will enhance the nation’s welfare consistent with scientific method? Or is it more akin to astrology? If you were in charge of running a war, would you rely on such a method to produce militarily-important advances?”

    If it were urgently important to reverse the environmental degradation of Chesapeake Bay and you had money to put scientists and engineers to work on the problem, would you create a peer-reviewed research grant system to let the “hidden hand” operate, expecting that this would yield a magical solution?

    The Germans and Scandinavians adopted the “Endless Frontier” peer-reviewed research system in the early years after the U.S. introduced it after World War II, assuming that any policy pursued by the then powerful and technologically advanced United States should be worth emulating. But they drastically redirected their research outlays toward applied goals in the 60s.

    Now the Germans, Scandinavians, and other nations, not the U.S. are leaders in global climate change policy, whereas we are a black sheep among advanced nations. The Germans have comparable or greater labor cost than we do, but had a 200+ billion trade surplus in 2008, whereas we had nearly 900 billion deficit. We no longer build our own rocket engines and must import much of our advanced environmental equipment like high-quality waste incinerators and turnkey sewage treatment plants. Our former lead in high tech is nearly gone

    Two areas in which we are undisputed world leaders are production of research publications, and scientific and planning conferences(100,000 U.S. conferences on global warming, according to Google Scholar). One should add, however, that credentialed social scientists report that the vast production of policy-related literature is not used by decisionmakers – nor is it suited to such use.

    Does such a lottery-like, serendipitous system of academic research – withfaculty in even leading institutions having to write 4, 5 proposals to get one funded justify full time employment of a big fraction of the nation’s scarce scientific talent?

    Instead of desperately fighting to keep our system of scattering papers that only commercial journal publishers and authors love upon the waters, wouldn’t it be an interesting idea for scientists and scientific leaders themselves to consider reforms that might once again make science and engineering careers with direct and more rewarding ties to the real world?

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