A Curious E-Mail

I received a curious e-mail last week. The people who sent it are concerned about the future of funding for science in this country and in particular about a bill sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith of Texas.

Dear David Hoffman,

Rep. Lamar Smith has drafted a bill that would replace peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a set of funding criteria chosen and overseen by Congress… and he wants to use it as a model for every federal science agency we have.

Rep. Smith’s bill would force the NSF to prove the “worth” of their grants men and women who are politicians, not scientists. And take a look at two of the main points those looking for a grant need to meet: securing national defense and answering questions he feels are important to society at large.

If we sit back and let the House pass this bill, we will be handing over our scientific research to men and women whose jobs are about political bias, not objective reasoning.

There’s a reason no one before Rep. Smith has tried to pull this off — because it opens the door to the defunding of research, the suppression of facts, and the injection of party politics into scientific research. Don’t let him open that Pandora’s box: join us in calling on the House to oppose Rep. Smith’s egregious bill immediately.

PETITION TO MY REPRESENTATIVES: Don’t let Lamar Smith undo all the NSF has done for scientific progress. Oppose his bill to turn objective research into political fodder today.

Click here to sign — it just takes a second.

— The folks at Watchdog.net

To be honest, I am not sure what to make of this. I do not know anything about the proposed legislation. I would imagine that a politician is the last person I would go to for decisions about scientific research. It seems to me however, that if the folks at Watchdog.net are concerned about the injection of party politics into scientific research, there is a simple solution, don’t request funding from the government.

The problem here is that, in the end, the funding for the National Science Foundation, as well as any other federal science agency comes from the taxpayers. The money belongs to the taxpayers and the taxpayers, or their elected representatives, should have the last word on how it is to be spent. What the people at Watchdog.net seem to want, and what is the current policy I suppose, is that the National Science Foundation be handed funds from the government with no accountability from the people’s representative on just how it should be spent or what research they think is most appropriate. The attitude here, so common in Washington D. C. these days is, “we know how to spend your money better than you do, so fork it over and shut up”. That is not right.

If this bill has the effects the folks at Watchdog.net fear, it would be unfortunate. I don’t doubt that Congress can spend money in amazingly stupid ways. As the representatives of the people, however, it is their duty to spend the taxpayer’s money in the ways the people want it to be spent. It is up to groups like Watchdog.net and others to educate Congress and the people on the best ways that federal funding ought to be used. If they are unwilling to take the effort to lobby Congress and the people, than they can fund scientific research with their own money.

Anyway, the defunding of research, suppression of facts, and the injection of party politics are already a fact of life. Just ask any climate researcher who dares to oppose the consensus on global warming/climate change.


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2 Responses to “A Curious E-Mail”

  1. NeuroProf Says:

    One of the great strengths of our society is that we do not have power concentrated in any one place. We are a federal system, with many powers delegated to state and local levels, and we aren’t a socialist society, so that much of the work of the nation is in the hands of the private sector.

    From my perspective, then, we would be best served by letting the scientists determine the scientific merit of research proposals. If we as a society value scientific progress, then we should allocate some money toward that end, but we should not dictate how that money is spent. We don’t, as taxpayers dictate which weapons systems and bases our military should invest in – we leave that to the military experts; likewise, we will get a better result if we let the experts allocate funding for basic scientific work.

    • David Hoffman Says:

      Actually, Congress exercises considerable oversight into military spending and troop deployments. Perhaps you recall the hilarious video in which Congressmen Hank Johnson expressed his concern that Guam would tip over. That was during a routine committee hearing regarding the movement of troops to Guam from another base.
      The idea expressed in the article seems to be that we should take decisions out of the hands of elected officials and allow impartial experts, in this case scientists, to make important decisions of policy. The problem is that experts can have their own biases and agendas too, and if if they are not accountable to anyone, especially the people they govern, a lot of problems can develop.
      You are almost certainly correct that scientists can do a better job in determining what sort of projects funding should go into, bu that is beside the point. It is not their money, except insofar as they are taxpayers too. Their advice should certainly be sought, but the final decisions ought to be in the hands of the representatives of the people who pay the taxes.

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