The micromangement of science by Congress critters who deny science could end America’s leadership in research

witch trial

Fruitful fossil database targeted by US House Science Committee
[Via Ars Technica]

When groups of people come together and pool their resources, great things can be accomplished (flinging humans onto the Moon comes to mind). In the US, the National Science Foundation is a factory of great things. It guides billions of tax dollars into university research projects each year (in 2015, $7.344 billion to be exact). And since science costs money, one unhappy necessity of the academic lifestyle is securing funding to keep the lights on and the lab running. (Give a kid a grant-writing kit to go with their chemistry set for Christmas. See if they play with it.) NSF grants are the lifeblood of many fields of science.

Getting a grant isn’t easy. In 2012, for example, NSF reviewed more than 48,000 grant proposals—each representing work that researchers were chomping at the bit to do. Less than 12,000 won approval. A number of researchers volunteer their time each year to go review grant proposals in their field, recommending the proposals they feel to be the best use of the money budgeted for their discipline. As is generally the case with peer review of papers for scientific journals, the reviewers remain anonymous. (“Oh, hi Jane! Say, I see you shot down the proposal I’ve been working toward for a decade…”)

Recently, the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, led by Texas Representative Lamar Smith, has tussled with NSF over research that Rep. Smith felt was a waste of funding. That included a broad effort to alter the criteria NSF used in judging grants to ensure they are “in the national interest,” but it also involved attempts to probe the approval of individual grants. Rep. Smith requested access to all documents pertaining to certain grants, including the peer reviews NSF closely guards as confidential. NSF was not pleased with these requests. Neither was the Association of American Universities.


Forty years ago it was liberal Congressional people trying to influence what grants NSF should pursue, seeking to overturn the decisions of those who understand best using the opinions of those who know least.

Now it appears to be time for some conservatives to do the same thing. The main difference is that liberals did not deny science. But a lot of Republican politicians do.

They do not see why monitoring volcanoes might be important. Or how studying fruit flies would be worthwhile. Or how  the ways that gun violence might be affecting America could affect us all.

And they do not want to recognize any scientist who might have even a small insight into climate change. Even when it is other Republicans who sponsored the bill.

Of course, climate change science is especially targeted. Many of them believe that global warming is a conspiracy and thousands of researchers are involved.

But the current Congressional efforts are going far beyond the simple cataloging of research efforts a generation ago. In particular, they want all the information – all the data, emails personal correspondence and confidential documents, etc. – involved in all these research efforts.

And public humiliation is becoming a standard approach. So not only must a researcher spend time and money of fulfilling the fishing expeditions from Congressional staffers but also look forward to flying to Washington to answer questions in front of a grandstanding Senator or Representative.

Not because these politicians know anything but because they hope to find something that will look embarrassing when taken out of context.

Such as was done with the Climategate emails. Even when no wrongdoing was ever found. And Potemkin villages are raised by misusing their oversight powers to further political ideology, not science or oversight.

Now with all sorts of confidentiality barriers breached by Congress people in a fishing expiedition, many researchers are wondering if they should even get involved in NSF grants. 

How will their careers be damaged or lives destroyed by political partisans on an ideological witch hunt?

From someone who was a focus of such an anti-science witchhunt driven by ideology:

As a nation, we have always led the world when it comes to technological innovation and scientific progress. Our quality of life has benefited greatly from our commitment to unfettered scientific exploration. Now, with a Congress that is firmly controlled by those who possess an antipathy toward science, all of that is threatened. It is a matter for great concern among all of us.

Oversight is one thing. But that is not what this is. They simply have no understanding of the intense vetting done to award any grant. 

It is hard enough getting funded based on the science. Now researchers will have to navigate political ideology that often contradicts the science. 

Research into the cancer-causing aspects of cigarette smoking was damaged by the same approaches, resulting in thousands of people dying.

America lost its leadership in high energy physics the first time Congress went through this sort of micromanagement. This looks to be even more damaging.

The guy in charge of the environment is a world class science denier, even as the globe hits the warmest it has been in recorded history. Over 90% of the Republicans on his Senate committee deny science.

Yet, 83% of American do acknowledge what science is telling us.

Sixty-eight percent of Republican leadership deny science, with 62% of those on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology denying science. Science deniers are in charge of NASA and NOAA.

For no good reason but furthering a political ideology, helping some organizations’s bottom line, stroking the egos of a few billionaires and getting elected.

Science looks to be very damaged over the next few years. I hope it can recover.

Cipolla’s Laws of Human Stupidity describe how the downward cycle of a culture occurs when the bandits  (those who harm others to help themselves) lead the stupid (those who hurt others as they hurt themselves).

Looks like that cycle is well underway. Something I said before:

Let’s see, where have we seen scientists and their work become trophies due to the political will of charlatans? Scientists were executed or sent to prison because they stood up for the truth when it went against the political thought of the time.