Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

The Second (Third? Fourth?) Coming of the Golden Fleece Awards

The Mighty ORAC has a nice piece on Sen. Tom Coburn’s attempt to revive Sen. William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards, Proxmire’s campaign in the 70s to “highlight” government waste. (Highlight being a technical political term meaning “to make hay out of an easy target for self-promotional purposes.” Clever folks these politicians.) More often than not, in the midst of pointing out some bit of local pork or another, these awards went after federally-funded research.

Why? Because research often sounds funny. Really. Why else would Palin attack fruit fly research? For the ignorant, it sounds pretty damn frivolous. For the rest of us, its pretty embarrassing to watch.

Now I’m not saying that there’s not waste in government, or even waste in research funding. There probably is. In fact, I’m willing to go as far as say–without any evidence at hand one way or the other–that there probably is waste in federal research funding. Someone, somewhere at the National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health, is funding a research program that they know, in their heart of hearts, will not advance the human body of knowledge one iota. Shocking, I know.

If only Coburn was actually pursuing something like that. No, he’s doing what Proxmire and others did before him, searching through the reams of research grant summaries produced by places like NSF to pick ones that sound silly or frivolous. Its easy enough to do, but will just as likely backfire on you. Again, ask Palin.

You can also ask Mark Sanford. Before Mark was a governor and a famed Appalachian explorer, he was a Republican Congresscritter of the Revolution of ’94 sort. In 1998, he played the same Golden Fleece game, searching the abstract databases of the National Science Foundation (which had become freely online) for funny-sounding award summaries.

To be honest, I did the same thing. I interned in the NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs (OLPA, which I always liked to say as Opa! They learned quickly to keep me away from the dishes.) As a pioneer in open-access government-type stuff, NSF put all their approved grant information online, which was pretty keen in the 90s. As an intern, I was not encumbered by a particular PR “beat” and was given free reign to cover whatever I found interesting, as long as the professional public information officers didn’t mind. I scanned through the award listings and came up with cool stuff like “supermassive” black holes and “doppler on wheels.”

Sanford did the same thing and came up with a remarkable rant on federal funding for ATM research. He wanted to slice almost $200 million from the budget, citing waste on ATM research and other silly things. Only he (or his staffer) didn’t bother to read beyond the headline, if they did, they would have realized that the award abstract referred to Asynchronous Transfer Mode, the switching technique that made your lightning fast dorm room ISDN connection so much faster than your parent’s Compuserve account. Cue the sad trombone. (Side note: Sadtrombone.com is apparently defunct so I’ll do it myself: Wah wah wah waaaaah.)

In fairness to Republicans, it was Sanford’s Michigan colleague Vern Ehlers who pointed out Sanford’s error, quashing the budget hack. (Check out this little note in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.)

Even more recently, Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska, tried to play the Golden Fleece game. Last year, Rep. Smith called for folks to search through NSF’s award database to find other funny-sounding stuff like:

$750,000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players and $1.2 million to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game industry. Help us identify grants that are wasteful or that you don’t think are a good use of taxpayer dollars.

Of course, both projects were taken drastically out of context. the soccer study was really a look at smart-swarming, that is how teams can come together to collaborate on complex problems. The “sound of objects breaking” was created for the study of how to recreate realistic noises in a virtual environment, say for search-and-rescue or the military, perhaps? Again, its a bit of irony. The NSF attempts to be responsible with our money, showing us precisely where the dollars are going, only for some political hack to come along, take the work out of context, and use it to further his own political agenda.

Oh, bother.

NSF, which only spends about 5 percent of its budget on administrative costs*, is getting nailed by political hacks for a) openly posting its award information (which is probably mandated by now) and b) funding scientists who often use imprecise or “clever” language in their award application titles and abstracts.

So, Coburn, you want to cut waste? Fine, but realize that federal funding for research is the backbone of our economy. Every new technical advance, therapeutic drug, surgical technique, material and technology we’ve seen in the last 50 years owes its very existence to agencies like the NSF and NIH. Every step forward we’ve made in medicine, technology and industry began in some academic laboratory with government dollars. Research funding is every bit a part of our infrastructure as our roads and bridges (which could also use a little bit of money now that I think of it).

Maybe you could take a little fiscal pride in that Tom, my friend, and a little less happy-dancing over the amount of farm subsidies your rake in for Oklahoma each year.

The fact is, NSF and NIH subject grant applications to peer review. That is, the agencies gather teams of scientists to review the grant applications made by other scientists. The NSF was started that way nearly 60 years ago as a way of making a science of science funding, whereas scientific projects would otherwise be funded through political largesse and budgetary earmarks. In other words, its the opposite of pork.

Money is scarce–only about 1 in 10 grants are ever given funding–so the pressure is on to fund high-impact, low-risk work. (If anything, there is a good argument to be made for funding high-risk work, but that’s not what I’m ranting about today.) Grants that get funding rarely get funded on the first go-around, and a lot of work goes into making sure the money is spent wisely. Note: I can’t think of anywhere else in the Federal government where people work so hard to make sure that taxpayer money is spent well. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Further reading:

  • Why the GOP Hates the National Science Foundation
  • What if They Gave a Science War and Only One Side Came?
    (An interesting essay regarding a recent American Association of Anthropology kerfluffle that’s tangentially-related.)
  • Science: The Endless Frontier:A Report to the President by Vannevar Bush
  • As We May Think (Another bit of Bush inspiration.)
  • * Best proof I can find is here, a report from 4 years ago. I admit, its a little outdated, but I’ve got work to do…