Scientists are the least credible people to decide how money should be spent.
In the wake of Senator Tom Coburn’s latest Wastebook of dubious scientific funding by the federal government, scientists are defending their misdeeds instead of blushing. Coburn (R-Oklahoma), a medical doctor, listed the top 100 wasteful projects that cost taxpayers $25 billion, including grants to study “voodoo dolls, gambling monkeys, zombies in love” and other subjects that seem to have no redeeming value or national interest (CNBC, Washington Times). Coburn’s site lists just a few of the studies and what they cost:
- Coast guard party patrols – $100,000
- Watching grass grow – $10,000
- State department tweets @ terrorists – $3 million
- Swedish massages for rabbits – $387,000
- Paid vacations for bureaucrats gone wild – $20 million
- Mountain lions on a treadmill – $856,000
- Synchronized swimming for sea monkeys – $50,000
- Pentagon to destroy $16 billion in unused ammunition — $1 billion
- Scientists hope monkey gambling unlocks secrets of free will –$171,000
- Rich and famous rent out their luxury pads tax free – $10 million
- Studying “hangry” spouses stabbing voodoo dolls – $331,000
- Promoting U.S. culture around the globe with nose flutists – $90 million
At Live Science, though, Stephanie Pappas defended these studies in the name of basic research—“studies that may not have immediate application and thus rarely get funding through private channels.” Many profound discoveries have, indeed, been made through basic research. Surely, though, not all basic research is created equal. The government cannot throw money at every conceivable study.
National Geographic sides with Live Science against government intrusion into funding decisions. This article, “Should the Government Fund Only Science in the ‘National Interest’?” attacks another Republican congressman, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who is pushing more oversight and accountability at the National Science Foundation (NSF), asking for “national interest” as a condition for funding science projects, even though he has only specifically “targeted several dozen specific grants out of 12,000 projects the NSF supports annually.” Like Pappas, reporter Eli Kintisch defends the status quo with the “basic science” argument. The NSF has a governing board that should decide how funds are spent, not politicians—particularly those with a “conservative political agenda”.
Once again, though, the list of possible “basic research” projects vastly exceeds the money available. Who should decide? Who should pay?
The answers might be simpler if institutional science’s method of knowledge generation guaranteed the production of accurate, useful information. But that assumption was again challenged by John Ioannidis, a Stanford University scientist, who published one of the most-cited papers of the millennium ten years ago, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” Now he’s back, Nature News reported, with a new list of recommendations for improving the still-awful record of published papers found to be wrong after passing peer review. One biologist tweeted, “I’m totally with John Ioannidis when he says the scientific reward system needs to change.”
In Nature he performed a new study: “John P. A. Ioannidis and colleagues asked the most highly cited biomedical scientists to score their top-ten papers in six ways.” (See also Science Daily: “Most published medical research is false; Here’s how to improve.” It’s clear from his team’s findings that peer review and citation rates are not guaranteeing good science.
There’s a long history of political control of science funding. The Paris Academy was directed by the king; they studied what he wanted them to study. In America, the government was initially much more controlling over science funding before the NSF was founded to direct scientific projects. Even so, “Tensions over the role of politics in science decisions have ‘been baked in from the start at NSF,’” one congressional staff member commented.
It’s also true that “national interest” is a vague standard. It might be in the national interest to focus on a wide variety of basic research projects, for national prestige or to attract the best and brightest researchers around the world. Certainly, though, there can be no national interest for publishing studies that are false or cartoonily ridiculous.
One thing seems to be forgotten by all the writers and reporters: the taxpayer. Government does not generate wealth; people and businesses do. What government has it confiscates through taxes. The one who pays, therefore, should have a strong voice in how that money is spent—and it does, in the form of representatives like John Coburn and Lamar Smith who, speaking for their constituents, would like at least a little more accountability for a spendthrift agency like the NSF that decides to study zombies when the nation is suffering under a $17 trillion debt and faltering economy.
It should not also be forgotten that any scientist is free to pursue any project with private funding. Many great discoveries were funded by private industry, foundations, or personal fortunes; look at what Elon Musk is accomplishing. If someone is not rich but has a good idea, crowdsourcing services like Kickstarter are available. Scientist, make your case: “I would like to raise funds to study synchronized swimming for sea monkeys.”
Unfortunately, Wastebook 2014 may be the last. Senator Coburn retires after his present term. It is not clear if anyone will take up his mission of pointing out instances of government waste.
The last word goes to John Ioannidis, who stated in 2012,
I do not mention all of these caveats because I believe they are very likely to occur to the point that the negatives of these proposed practices will outweigh the positives.… However, at the end of the day, no matter what changes are made, scientific credibility may not improve unless the pursuit of truth remains our main goal in our work as scientists. This is a most noble mission that needs to be continuously reasserted.
We asked once before if a scientist should be funded who wants to study the sounds emitted by animals when he steps on their feet. Wouldn’t that qualify as “basic research”? Doesn’t that fit within the category of “studies that may not have immediate application and thus rarely get funding through private channels”?
We treat “Science” as some kind of infallible category of information-gathering, but like C.S. Lewis said, we should really look at any research endeavor as a matter of logical knowledge, not treating “scientific” knowledge as a separate thing. Science, moreover, is mediated by fallible, self-interested human beings. We humans can only overcome our selfish urges through accountability to others.
Americans have an opportunity to vote for national representatives in a few days. Spend your tax dollars wisely.