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The House readies a new attack on scientific research

The House GOP sharpens its scalpels on scientific research
What's really behind conservatives' attacks on the social sciences?
How to keep American science competitive: Leave politics out of it

There's something about science that makes politicians nervous. The scientific process is unruly. It takes longer to bear fruit than the two-year congressional election cycle. Its results almost always undermine political ideologies.

That must have a lot to do with the latest attempt by House Republicans to undermine scientific research in the United States. This was a subtle maneuver. The House voted to shift $15.3 million from the National Science Foundation's social sciences programs to "physical sciences and engineering," which our congressional experts deem to be more like the "science" they learned about in their picture books in kindergarten.

The foundation's total budget remains the same. So where's the harm?

What's insidious about this step is the injection of politics into research grant-making. Worse, it's the injection of ignorance into the grant-making process under the guise of being economically prudent.

"Taxpayers can't help but wonder why NSF spent $1.5 million of their money to study rangeland management in Mongolia rather than, say, in Texas," declared Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and sponsor of the measure.

It's shocking enough that the chairman of the House science committee can't imagine that scientists might learn something by examining practices outside the confines of his congressional district, but there's more to it than that. 

"Some members of Congress simply will never be convinced that social science is a part of science," said Wendy Naus, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations. Politicians get especially exercised about social science because "it's the study of humans, so it flirts with peoples' personal belief systems." 

Nor is Smith especially comfortable with where any independent scientific research might lead. He has upbraided the TV networks for "bias" for failing to air the opinions of climate-change skeptics, such as himself.

Smith and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, his partner in the current anti-science campaign, claim that they're only looking out for American competitiveness. "American pre-eminence in several science and technology fields is slipping," they wrote in a USA Today op-ed article last year, wringing their hands that NASA astronauts have to "hitch rides to the Space Station on board Russian spacecraft."

Here's what they didn't say: Only months before they penned their article, they voted to cut NASA's budget by more than $1 billion, to its lowest level in seven years.

The main weapon employed by Smith and Cantor is cherry-picking the titles of research grants to make the projects sound absurd. In Smith's hands, for instance, a $227,000 project at Michigan State University to examine the evolution of humans' understanding of animal behavior over the last century is caricatured as paying a researcher "to thumb through the pages of old National Geographic magazines to look at animal pictures."

This technique, sadly, has bipartisan roots. The pioneer of such cocksure philistinism was Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), who started issuing his "Golden Fleece" awards in 1975.

Proxmire became addicted to the fawning press attention he got from portraying serious scientific research as ludicrous. His know-nothing rabble-rousing appalled progressives who otherwise admired him for his principled stands against the Vietnam War and in favor of campaign finance reform. But its more lasting and destructive effect was to render political attacks on scientific research broadly acceptable. 

Today, congressional interference takes many forms. Last year, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) teamed up on a measure that forbid the National Science Foundation to support political science research unless it would benefit "national security or economic interests." Uncertain how to define those categories, the foundation simply canceled all grants in political science for the year.  

"That really was a jarring moment for the [research] community," Naus said, because it signaled that Congress didn't consider any interference in research policy to be out of bounds. 

Last year, Smith proposed a bill requiring the foundation director to certify in writing that every project backed by the organization "is groundbreaking and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large."

Scientific inquiry by its nature can't be crammed into such pigeonholes. That's especially true of basic science, for which colleges and universities are heavily dependent on government because industry isn't interested in paying for research without evident commercial potential.

Around the same time, he demanded from acting director Cora Marrett access to scientific/technical reviews that led to approval of five specific grants, including projects on conservation practices in the Amazon basin, the operations of the International Criminal Court and China's dairy industry. 

The peer-review process isn't infallible, but it depends to a large extent on reviewer anonymity, confidentiality and immunity from pressure from special interests, including political interests. To its credit, the foundation refused Smith's request. The committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, explained why, crisply informing Smith by letter that "interventions in grant awards by political figures with agendas, biases, and no expertise is the antithesis of the peer review processes. ... You are sending a chilling message to the entire scientific community that peer review may always be trumped by political review." 

Smith's effort to shift funding away from the social sciences at the National Science Foundation is still subject to conference negotiations with the Senate, which could take place in the next few weeks. Even if it fails, it won't be the last attempt, because the crucial thing that politicians don't understand about America's competitiveness in science is that it can't survive unless they stay out of the scientists' way.

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