Really, why shouldn't we leave US science in the hands of a conservative tea party lawyer?

Apr 26 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Fresh on the heels of the Coburn amendment to the restoration of much of the NSF budget for 2012 that is likely to decimate political science funding in the near future, the Senate is trying to further limit NSF. Rep. Lamar Smith, Chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is proposing to require all NSF funded research to justify how it will benefit the US population.

Set aside for a second that NSF funds fundamental science that is not required to have a direct application to human populations (I think we have a funding agency for that). The whole point of basic research is that it is foundational. In many cases the results of current studies funded by NSF may have massive human impacts down the road. For some, those impacts might be intentional or predicted, but for most they will not. The idea that we can easily predict the impact on society a priori is unicorn-riding fantasy.

But the bigger issue here is why we have SOPA-supporting, climate change skeptic tea party lawyer deciding how the NSF should decide on science funding priorities. Maybe it's an upgrade on his predecessor, Ralph Hall, but the absurdity of the Congressional Science Committee being populated by people who have zero background in science is disturbing, though nothing new. Maybe our situation isn't as bad as what is happening in Canada, but we need to be concerned when politicians think they know how to "improve" the way a science agency runs their business.

Smith's suggestion, made during the afternoon hearing, could signal yet another twist in the debate. It also suggests that his thinking had evolved in the 2 hours between hearings. Instead of confining himself to social science research, as he and his Republican colleagues had done during the morning hearing with Holdren, Smith focused on NSF's entire portfolio in his afternoon comments to acting NSF Director Cora Marrett and Dan Arvizu, chair of the National Science Board that oversees NSF.

"These questions are not easy," Smith said in his opening statement. "It requires recognition that we might be able to improve the process by which NSF makes its funding decisions."

Later in the hearing, Smith made the case for a new yardstick with which to measure an NSF grant that would focus on its likely contribution to "the national interest." Turning to Arvizu, he said, "If there's a way to improve the process by which NSF makes its awards, I assume that you'd support it."

If, in fact, the Science Committee splits NSF out of the COMPETES Act and into a separate bill, it'll make pretty clear that their intention is to tie the agencies hands as much as possible. This is not about making decisions about the national funding objective, it's about people who don't understand science trying to force money away from anything they fear. I think the president's Science Advisor, John Holdren, summed it up pretty well, when he said "I think it's a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding."

10 responses so far

  • Joshua King says:

    Tyranny of the minority at it's finest.

  • Casey says:

    Out of curiosity, what is the process for becoming chair of a committee in the Senate? I hate the tea party with a passion, but we have to recognize that they are their supporters deserve to have their say on public policy issues (and I would call the balance between basic vs applied research a matter of public policy).

    Please don't flame me for this comment, I'm trying to get a handle on the "root" of the problem, not support Republican anti-science sentiments.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:


    Do you think that these jackholes will give up once they bloodletted the NSF?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Casey, I don't know off-hand what the process is but from my brief reading there is a nomination process. Of the three options this year, it was a "who's worse" competition. I was surprised at the list and wonder how that came to be.

  • Dave says:

    Depressing. And on a day when the FAA gets it's sequester essentially taken care of because fucking flights are delayed. Something is very wrong in this country.

  • Hermitage says:

    A downside of the CSC being one of many committees that are stocked with ego-drive dumbfucks precisely to keep them out of the 'important' committees. Woe betide anyone who lives at the mercy of said dumbfucks, though.

  • A says:

    Sequester what, the budget or the decision making process?

    Somehow raising the debt ceiling and lowering/cutting the federal the spending does not make sense for balancing money issues, but rather seem to shift to private sector alocation of money coming from debt incurred. I guess is a way to generate industry from public investments.

    Is that the goal?

  • A says:

    As I reason it:

    the current social and economic crisis is a result of cumulative events, some of which involve policy and power influences leading to an apparent steady state reflecting those policy decisions, which in turn reflect the population's doing.

    The policies are supposed to come from all sectors of society trying to exert law and order to provide a way to manage life for everyone. But the laws become a restriction when the means to do the good intended are not available, or somehow misplaced, or become the means for a different type of activity that was intended.

    Why do we have currency? To make trading efficient and society's improvement achievable in a quantified format that can be accounted for, and also evaluated.

    I'm not a lawyer, or law maker, but natural law gives support to the idea of currency values in human society, as way to simplify a complex and overarching system. And they would work as long as they go along with the nature of human society.

    The crisis shows a constraint in something determinant of success of the modern human social system, that when you think about it is not human, is invented, and even overrides the procedures outlines for an ordered and lawful society that one calls policy.

    That leaves unquestionably highlighted the monetary policy as main point to change for the better.

    The war crisis is a reflection of other additional issues. But they somehow make the most money and exert the most influence generation after generation.

    Human nature? No, I think is the nature of money issue, or as it have come to be.

    Kind of pretentious to be in charge of whole chunks of the planet called countries when that basic ideas to keep it going well are somehow defeating the purpose of facilitating human potential- both, money and the policies-
    What to do????????????????????????

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  • Hey, it's an approach that's working in Canada!

    (for definitions of "working" that include "making us an international laughing stock")

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