Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Politicians don't do science, Scientists do (#NSF #FundScience)

As reported in ScienceInsider, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) would like to draft the "High Quality Research Act" that would rewrite the criteria that the National Science Foundation (NSF) uses to assess research grants. (Look also at an op-ed in the Huffington Post.)  The proposed language suggests a desire for immediacy to the impact of a given scientific effort directly on the public as well as a lack of flexibility in the degree to which the research may be pursued. Moreover, his recent actions also suggest a desire to have a political review of research grants beyond the traditional merit review performed within the scientific community. The NSF has necessarily responded to this political attack by countering with political tactics such as stonewalling. One of their main arguments has been that the review criteria just adopted in the past 6 months had gone through significant vetting, and therefore should not be reconsidered at this time. The NSF is also arguing that piecemeal reevaluation of individual grants by politicians undermines the peer review process, not to mention that they would require Congressional oversight at a microlevel that Congress has presumably empowered the NSF to act on. Clearly such review would be at best pennywise and certainly pound foolish.

To most scientists, such discussion is opaque because it seems to be directing the focus of the discussion from a fundamental academic point. That is, the progress of science is not a straight line. It's a highly connected (likely scale-free) network with new discoveries often dependent on advances in distant arms of science. That's the reason why we need to allow for science discovery broadly rather than attempt to pre-select the winners today. For example, medical schools decades ago would not have funded and did not fund the development of lasers by chemists and physicists or the development of control theories by mathematicians and engineers. Without such advances, we wouldn't have refractive eye surgery or laser scalpels. That is, if we use the current dogma to pick the best new science with immediate impact, we will never break from its paradigm. The fact that this intellectual argument doesn't win with some politicians is simply a reflection that scientists don't do politics.

The irony in all this is that basic science is working for our country. The return on the investment of basic science is at worst even (dollar-for-dollar) and as much as a factor of 100 in GDP per $1 spent on the NSF, depending on how the ROI is calculated. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) specifically states that "federal spending in support of basic research over the years has, on average, had a significantly positive return, according to the best available research." The science in universities is generating countless companies. (For example, according to this Boston Magazine article the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well at universities like MIT which is among the leaders of the digital age. According to Forbes Magazine, my own institution is in the top 10 of incubators as well!) The rest of the world, particularly China, has noticed this, and several countries are increasing—if not outright outspending the U.S.—their investments in basic research (in terms of percentage of their GDP). It's often quoted that peer review is not ideal (and this is particularly true when the system is stressed to funding levels well below 20%), but that it's the best system we have. It's hard to argue against this given our track record for driving the economy.

So please tell politicians to keep doing the politics and to keep funding scientists to do the science. Our nation will continue to advance much better that way!

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