On "duplication" of research effort

May 31 2011 Published by under [Information&Communication], [Politics]

Senator Coburn's recent report on NSF has caused quite a stir. Possibly because it's typical conservative Republican hand waving and spin, but hey, at least he's not blatantly lying on the floor of congress to advance his agenda, right? Right?

A few other bloggers have already jumped all over this, including Dr. O, Namnezia and Prodigal Academic, so I am not going to attack the "report" as a whole. Like any other argument with someone who relies on lies or "bent" truth to advance their position, it's not worth it.

There was one section of the report, however, that I found amusing in its complete and utter lack of awareness regarding the funding climate of today, and that was the "Duplication" section (p. 20 for those who want to follow along at home). The central thesis of this section is summarized in the first paragraph:

Duplication of efforts across the federal government can lead to inefficiencies and waste of taxpayer dollars. Congress has all too often given government agencies overlapping authorities and responsibilities, often creating new programs without consolidating or eliminating existing programs with the same purposes.

Sounds like it was lifted from the stock congressional report template like a piece of clipart, but whatever. So the report is anti-duplication. Shocking. But, what kind of duplication are we talking about here? This is where the art of spin comes in and the wording gets all squirrely.

Even a cursory review of NSF grants turns up potential examples of duplication. For example, NSF funds a significant amount of energy research on top of the $4.4 billion DOE supports. A search of NSF.gov of program areas beginning with the term “energy” yields approximately 1,000 grants totaling another $590 million. 104 NSF’s trademark Antarctica program has a priority of supporting “national energy security goals.”

I'm sure a "cursory review" was all that was done, and I love the wording with "potential examples". Never attack without a back door, classic. In any case, let's assume that a key word search means anything other than that the PI is aware of current funding trends and tried to align with them - what is "energy research", for instance? Is it one kind of science or are there multiple different fields that having something to offer? Oh, it's interdisciplinary? That seems like something the Feds have been pushing for a while. Should we take all work related to energy and give it to DOE and eliminate anything related to energy from NSF? But what about the dreaded "silos" that the government is always freaking out about? We could run this around in circles for months.

My favorite was this little gem:

With 99 programs at 11 agencies, overlap and duplication is a significant concern. Consider that across the federal government there are nine programs intending to improve STEM education for minority populations and 15 programs for graduate level STEM education.

Translation: Cause srsly folks, do we really need NINE programs across the country to improve STEM education for minority populations? Aren't all minority populations the same? Can't we just have program? What a fucking waste of money!

But the bigger point is that the perception of duplication of programs is a symptom of the budgetary decisions congress has been making. We can argue around and around about whether more money for science produces better quality science, but the fact of the matter is that funding rates are low right now. There is heavy demand, little supply and a lot of labs are having to explore new funding options to stay afloat. In the current climate, PIs are looking to pitch their research to agencies they might otherwise not consider. Is this redundancy? Should PIs only have ideas that fit the mandate of their core funding agency?

This came up in Prodigal Academic's blog and was used as a source in Coburn's report:

Some in the scientific community question the ethics behind submitting overlapping proposals to two different government agencies. In an online discussion, researchers discussed how they, or people they work with, had often submitted the same proposal to separate agencies. One commenter asserted managers at the Department of Energy suggest scientists should submit their proposals to multiple agencies. The blog’s author stated, “Some of the DoD basic science calls are pretty broad—I think it would be possible to use more or less the same proposal, reformatted, for various DoD calls that overlap with USDA, DOE, NSF, NIH, or NASA programs.”

NEWS FLASH: If your work could be funded by multiple agencies and you're not sending it to them, the biggest question is why not? Would it even be possible to write the programs of the various funding agencies to exclude any overlap? Maybe, but likely by isolating large communities that would then lack any home. To do so would be supremely stupid and short-sighted.

The fact that there is some overlap in key words and PIs can submit similar ideas to multiple agencies is a feature, not a bug. If Coburn is worried about individuals double-dipping for the same project, then why not show some actual examples of that (which I think would be very difficult to do and not get hammered for it)?

As usual, this "report" seems like just another conservative attempt at justifying some of their more morally reprehensible proposals by trying to pretend like they have federal savings at heart. Much like the report, the promotional campaign was chock full of misrepresentations and attempts to convince anyone unwilling to read anything for themselves that SCIENCE IS WASTIN UR MONIEZ!

I guess the lies sounds a whole lot better than the truth.

4 responses so far

  • Patchi says:

    I love the precision of the keyword search.... next it will be "cancer" or "aging". And all this from the same guys who want a second fighter engine to "stimulate competition"...

  • Neuropop says:

    It is highly likely that these reports are prepared by interns or low level staffers who have very little understanding of science in general, except in the broad and often inaccurate brushstrokes painted by the mainstream media and Hollywood movies. Nova, who the hell watches PBS. I suppose one ought to start with better science education starting at primary school levels. Oh wait, that is one of the "wasteful" programs....Never mind.

  • HFM says:

    Oh noes! You mean the science from Agency A might have relevance to someone, somewhere, doing work for Agency B? Somebody get my smelling salts.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    At a much lower level, I tried to get two groups of researchers to combine their efforts and produce a single, perhaps more comprehensive, study. I was unsuccessful. Two independent studies were carried out, using slightly different techniques and study materials. The two studies are in agreement more than one might have expected, so maybe we actually know something. As a result, I have gone from being irritated at my failure, to being pleased by my failure.

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