Opinion: Leave science to the experts



Daniel Sprockett

The new Republican-led House of Representatives has me concerned for the future of science research funding in the United States. While funding comes from many sources, 20 percent of all scientific research done in the U.S. is financed by the National Science Foundation

Last month, Congress passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which expanded the NSF’s budget from just under $7 billion in 2010, to just over $7.9 billion by 2013. I realize that $7 billion might sound like a large sum of money, but to put that into perspective, Congress spent 10 times that amount last year on the war in Afghanistan alone.

However, the passing of this bill doesn’t guarantee funding. In the coming weeks, Congress will decide how much of the federal budget will actually be allocated to the NSF. These decisions come on the heel of some strong attacks on NSF funded research by House Republicans.

Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, recently targeted the NSF as an example of wasteful government spending. He asked Americans to “help us identify [NSF] grants that are wasteful or that you don’t think are a good use of taxpayer dollars,” citing “university academics [who] received a $750,000 grant to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players,” as an example.

The study that Rep. Smith was referring to was not “soccer research” at all, but a study of how individual efforts contribute to group success, as LiveScience.com reports. Its conclusions were applicable to all complex, interacting groups – from ecosystems to stock markets. The study simply used soccer players as a model system.

Using model systems is quite common in scientific research. Some phenomena are simply too slow, too rare or too complex to study all at once. Researchers also use model systems for ethical reasons, especially in medicine and biology.

However, this point seems to escape many of our nation’s politicians. During the 2008 presidential election, Sarah Palin harshly criticized the federal funding of fruit fly research. But fruit flies, due in part to their small size and high reproduction rates, have been invaluable to our modern understanding of genetics and disease. De-funding such critical research areas – merely because some simple-minded politicians don’t understand their goals – means cutting off our nation’s primary route towards innovation and technological advancement.

Most non-scientists probably don’t realize how difficult it currently is to obtain NSF funding. Investigators are required to submit lengthy, highly technical research proposals and detailed budgets. Other researchers, who are often competing for the same diminishing funding pool, then vet the proposals. As a result, only the best proposals are funded.

Overall, the NSF funds less than one-third of all grant requests it receives, and in some research areas, funding rates plummet to less than 5 percent.

Rep. Smith’s comments are symptomatic of the anti-intellectual rhetoric plaguing the GOP. Republicans have attacked evidence-based investigations into areas such as stem cells, global climate change and the entire field of evolutionary biology. While no one expects politicians to be experts in every scientific field, they should at least recognize that winning an election does not qualify them to judge the quality or usefulness of such highly specialized research projects.

It is clear that, with such blatant displays of ignorance regarding scientific standard practices, only scientists – not politicians or everyday Americans – are qualified to evaluate the merit of scientific research proposals.

Daniel Sprockett is a researcher in the KSU Department of Anthropology and a columnist at the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].