The National Science Foundation too often shortchanges American taxpayers by funding low-value, low-priority social science projects.
Here are some doozies: the veiling-fashion industry in Turkey, Viking textiles in Iceland, the “social impacts” of tourism in the northern tip of Norway, legal careers in transition following law school, and whether hunger causes couples to fight (using the number of pins stuck in voodoo dolls as a measure of aggressive feelings).
In a world in which research funding is a zero-sum game, the foundation's Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) has shown that it lacks sufficient integrity and professional judgment to be trusted.
Several academics and others have recently written commentaries praising the value of social science projects and condemning congressional attempts to rein them in. The wrongheaded notion that social science projects are inherently just as worthy as basic research in the physical and biological sciences and engineering has distorted and diminished the value of public investment in scientific research.
Do the mandarins of the social sciences really believe that a study of depictions of animals in National Geographic magazine (which the foundation funded) should take precedence over research to identify markers for Alzheimer's disease or pancreatic cancer? A large fraction of highly ranked, important grant proposals are not accepted because of limited resources.
The House of Representatives passed legislation in May that would go a long way toward stopping the creep of mediocre scientific research funding at the foundation.
In recent years, Congress has annually approved a $6-billion allocation to the NSF to spend as it sees fit. The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 would instead designate some scientific disciplines as more important than others by restoring the congressional practice of allocating funds by research areas. It also sharply reduces the foundation's ability to fund the social sciences and the geosciences.
To be sure, politicians should not make decisions about individual grant proposals, but they are responsible for exercising oversight of federal agencies, setting overall priorities and combating waste, fraud and abuse — and stupidity.
The proposed changes are no-brainers. Some of the SBE directorate's projects — such as a major program to develop the next generation of mathematical and statistical algorithms for the detection of chemical agents and biological threats — are worthy. But only some.
The foundation has directed millions of taxpayer dollars to studies such as how to ride a bicycle, whether political views are genetically predetermined, whether parents choose trendy baby names, when is the best time to buy a ticket to a sold-out sporting event and why the same teams always seem to dominate the NCAA basketball playoffs.
As for the geosciences, research on climate change is legitimate — when it is performed by meteorologists, oceanographers, physicists and biologists. But the NSF and other federal agencies have been funding redundant, politically overheated and even ludicrous climate change boondoggles. For example, the NSF has wasted millions of dollars on projects that include a climate change musical ($697,177), a series of games ($449,972) and art shows ($2.51 million).
The National Science Foundation was created in 1950 to ensure U.S. leadership in areas of science and technology that are essential to economic growth and national security. Unfortunately, tight federal budgets and a wave of politically correct but scientifically marginal research priorities (and over-regulation, which is another story) have put U.S. leadership at risk.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projects that China will overtake the United States in research and development spending by 2020. If we don't set smarter research priorities and increase overall spending, America's scientists and businesses face the prospect of becoming also-rans in technological innovation, the lifeblood of the U.S. economy.
It's not surprising that some in academia feel the need to rebuke legislators who want to set rational priorities for the kinds of research funded by taxpayer dollars. But Congress is right to shift the status quo to emphasize research that is in the national interest.
At a time when budgetary restraints at the NSF, the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies are causing much crucial research to go unfunded, why should we permit the NSF — or any federal agency, for that matter — to squander money on trivial pursuits? We're smarter than that.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology .