New Front in War on Science

October 21, 2017

inquisition

Science:

Senate Republicans have launched a new attack on peer review by proposing changes to how the U.S. government funds basic research.

New legislation introduced this week by Senator Rand Paul (R–KY) would fundamentally alter how grant proposals are reviewed at every federal agency by adding public members with no expertise in the research being vetted. The bill (S.1973) would eliminate the current in-house watchdog office within the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, and replace it with an entity that would randomly examine proposals chosen for funding to make sure the research will “deliver value to the taxpayer.” The legislation also calls for all federal grant applications to be made public.

Paul made his case for the bill yesterday as chairperson of a Senate panel with oversight over federal spending. The hearing, titled “Broken Beakers: Federal Support for Research,” was a platform for Paul’s claim that there’s a lot of “silly research” the government has no business funding. Paul poked fun at several grants funded by NSF—a time-honored practice going back at least 40 years, to Senator William Proxmire (D–WI) and his “Golden Fleece” awards—and complained that the problem is not “how does this happen, but why does it continue to happen?”

goya

Paul’s proposed solution starts with adding two members who have no vested interest in the proposed research to every federal panel that reviews grant applications. One would be an “expert … in a field unrelated to the research” being proposed, according to the bill. Their presence, Paul explained, would add an independent voice capable of judging which fields are most worthy of funding. The second addition would be a “taxpayer advocate,” someone who Paul says can weigh the value of the research to society.

That provision would apply to every federal agency that awards competitive research grants. But another portion of the bill would affect only NSF, specifically, its Office of Inspector General. That quasi-independent office now investigates waste, fraud, and abuse of NSF funds, as well as investigating allegations of research misconduct.

Paul’s bill would transfer its authority—as well as its budget and staff—to a new Office of the Inspector General and Taxpayer Advocate for Research. Its job would be to comb through NSF’s portfolio of top-rated proposals and chose a “random” sample to determine “if the research will deliver value to the taxpayer.” The office would also have veto power; that is, no proposal that it finds wanting could be funded by NSF.

inquisition-wheel

Paul also wants to ban the practice at some agencies of allowing applicants to recommend potential reviewers, as well as anyone who should not judge their application because of a conflict of interest or other disqualifying factors. NSF allows both types of suggestions; the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, allows applicants to request a particular study section, a body of some 20 reviewers, along with the names of individuals who should be excluded.

“So the people getting money can recommend who approves giving them the money,” Paul said in his opening remarks. “That doesn’t sound very objective.”

The chairperson of the full Senate committee on government oversight, Senator James Lankford (R–OK), took a slightly more measured tone in critiquing current practices at federal research agencies. He began by acknowledging that the government has a role to play in supporting science, before ticking off his concerns about whether there’s a level playing field.

“I’m not opposed to research,” Lankford began. “In fact, I’m grateful for some of it every time I pick up my cellphone or go to the doctor’s office. But the question is whether the information [from the research] is available to everyone, the diversity of the selection teams [choosing the research], and the national benefit of it.”

The top Democrat on the panel, Senator Gary Peters (D–MI), defended both the way government funds research and the value of that research. The co-sponsor of a 2017 law that gave NSF a vote of confidence, Peters acknowledged that no system is perfect, but suggested that his colleagues were missing the bigger picture.

“While certain basic research projects that receive federal funding certainly have silly-sounding titles, further examination may reveal the true scientific merit and potential broader impacts of the work,” Peters said. “Rather than inject politics into this process, our discussion today should instead concentrate on how to safeguard the often unexpected process of discovery inherent in scientific inquiry, while ensuring that federal dollars spent on research remains completely and fully accountable taxpayers.”

Two of the witnesses—Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and Rebecca Cunningham of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor—were generally supportive of the status quo, although Nosek emphasized the importance of replicating findings to maximize federal investments. The third witness, Terence Kealey of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., asserted that there’s no evidence that publicly funded research makes any contribution to economic development.

The hearing ran for less than an hour before members were called away for votes. But before it ended, Lankford and Paul had warned that change is coming and that the academic research community needs to shape up if it wants to be on the winning side. “I think there’s a lot of bipartisan support for these changes,” said Lankford, whose committee would take up the legislation.

Paul was more direct. “There’s a lot of bizarre stuff that everybody agrees should not be going on,” he asserted. “And if you don’t fix it, the danger is that people [in Congress] will get tired and there won’t be any more money for research.”

The prospects for Paul’s legislation are unclear. A Libertarian often at odds with the leadership of his own party, Paul is not known as an alliance builder, and so far his bill has no co-sponsors. At the same time, most proposed legislation never even gets a hearing, so Paul at least has cleared that hurdle.

 

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9 Responses to “New Front in War on Science”


  1. Reblogged this on Move for Change and the Brooklyn Culture Jam and commented:
    An article worth reading from Peter Sinclair’s ‘climate change crock of the week’. Republicans have been known to mis-characterize science research projects that the federal government has funded. Rand Paul’s proposal goes a step further–it would give government entities the power to veto research they didn’t think was worthwhile. the Devil’s in the Details, but people should take this seriously.And (as Sinclair notes)” A Libertarian often at odds with the leadership of his own party, Paul is not known as an alliance builder, and so far his bill has no co-sponsors. At the same time, most proposed legislation never even gets a hearing, so Paul at least has cleared that hurdle.”

  2. wpNSAlito Says:

    **…replace it with an entity that would randomly examine proposals chosen for funding to make sure the research will “deliver value to the taxpayer.” **

    I’m OK with such an entity if it’s established AFTER they have a similar body which would randomly examine pork projects that congresscritters fund.

    Let’s talk about the F35, shall we…?

  3. neilrieck Says:

    Abraham Lincoln set up the National Academy of Sciences in 1863 expressly for the purpose of advising politicians on matters of science. This is because on the topic of science, politicians had no expertise at all (they were out of their depths). Since 1863, I can only assume that politicians have become more clueless on topics of science. But this video by Neil deGrasse Tyson tells it much better than I ever could.

  4. indy222 Says:

    This is the most chilling, the most apocalyptic announcement related to science of any yet coming from the Trump Empire. It makes the web site chicanery of early ’17 look like petty meddling by comparison. This could halt the progress of objective science, and certainly kill climate science in this country. If this goes through, expect a brain drain that makes any comparison with Britain in the 1970’s etc look like a pin-prick leak. This would be more like a collapse into a black hole of LIGO-proportions.


  5. Terence Kealey of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., asserted that there’s no evidence that publicly funded research makes any contribution to economic development.

    Yeah right, only the patented and copyrighted results of privately funded research advance society.

  6. J4Zonian Says:

    I’m curious about the images used here. It doesn’t seem up to the standards of climate crocks to throw in random, disturbing images without having them relate to the topic directly, and without explaining how they relate.

    While I don’t know if the robes shown are KKK or capirote, ancient Spanish and Portuguese robes worn at Easter. Condemned by the Inquisition, they became signs of punishment, then penitence. For reasons unknown similar dress was adopted by the KKK, who for all their mental illnesses never struck me as opposed to any real science.

    As far as I know, at no time were those pointy hats associated in any way with anti-science anything. In fact being condemned by the Inquisition would be an honor and would more likely put the wearers of the robes on the side of Galileo and science than on the side of anti-scientific ideologues–at least sort of.

  7. ubrew12 Says:

    There’s an element of ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves” here. Libertarians like Rand Paul have so thoroughly bankrupted the country: by cutting taxes and running up public debt, and by cutting regulations, allowing Wallstreet to fleece Mainstreet. And now, fresh from giving $600 billion this year to the military (because otherwise ‘radical terrorists’ will terrorize the country? Come on, it is ALREADY obviously terrorized, by Fox News), they want Scientists to make sure their research applies to their myopic bottom-line.

    This is a backdoor that will allow Monsanto, for example, to nix research into what is killing all the bees. That is all.

  8. mboli Says:

    The Know Nothings: a U.S. political party that enjoyed a brief successful run in the mid-1850s. Basic tenets: nativism and opposition to immigrants, opposition to expertise, hatred of Catholicism (who had been immigrating from Germany and Ireland from the 1830s on).
    A hundred and sixty years later the Know Nothings are back! The hated immigrant religion is now Islam.


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