William Proxmire was something of a hero in my Wisconsin family, where my father at one time had aspirations to becoming a professional politican. Unfortunately, the thing he is most remembered for is the one thing my family had significant reservations about. The 'Golden Fleece' awards made perfect sense in the abstract: identifying places the government was wasting taxpayer money, and even better if you can make it seem terribly frivolous. The execution of the idea, however, often failed due to an arrogance, if you will, in believing that anyone can look at the title or summary of a scientific grant or paper and decide whether it is 'worthy'.
Proxmire's mantle has been taken up many times over the years, most recently by Representative Adrian Smith of Nebraska. Smith – a member of the House Science and Technology Committee – has a featured spot on soon-to-be-majority whip Eric Cantor's "YouCut" website. If you've only read about it, you really should check out Smith's video for yourself.
It's the Golden Fleece awards on the Internet. Smith's target of choice is the National Science Foundation: the government organization that funds the vast majority of the most basic research done in this country. The distinction that Smith makes in his video between 'hard science' and 'waste' is interesting. He's not suggesting that NSF is overall a waste of money. He even cites the 'almost 150 Nobel Prizes' won by NSF awardees. Going after NSF makes perfect sense because NSF requires awardees to submit a project summary that contains one paragraph explicitly designed for "the public". It is ironic that NSF's laudable desire to be clear with the public ends up working against it.
The instructions Smith gives for finding wasteful grants are simple. After going to the NSF website…
In the "Search Award For" field, try some keywords, such as: success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc. to bring up grants. If you find a grant that you believe is a waste of your taxdollars, be sure to record the award number.
You then submit the award number to the website and hopefully someone will do a better job of investigating the grant content than did the people who picked out the two examples Smith cites in his motivational video. Dan Vergano compares Smith's view of that research with the reality in USA Today. I won't re-hash Vergano's excellent article, but suffice it to say that understanding something really is a pre-requisite to juding it. Smith's examples are actually quite valid research with potential implications for making the world a better place. I've been reading a lot about how the precepts involved in video gaming are being shown to have potential for improving student learning of math and science. I can't wait to see what the 'Citizen Googlers' do with those grants. Proxmire may have identified some actual waste, but he also was forced to admit that, in his zeal for a good press release lede, he mis-tagged work that actually had significant ramifications for agriculture, industry, human health, or just plain improving our understanding of the universe.
We (the scientific community) have spent a lot of effort trying to make science attractive. We've been promoting the heck out of the idea of 'science for all'. We've tried to make science look cool by showing that rock stars like it, cheerleaders cheer for it, blowing things up on television in the name of science, and generally trying to make scientists into celebrities. In short, we've been marketing science just like any other product we want the world to buy.
I'm beginning to wonder whether we are doing ourselves a disservice with this approach. Science is in some ways like sports. Anyone can understand the basics, the same way anyone can appreciate the laws of baseball. But becoming a real athlete requires determination, hard work, training and dedication. Not coincidentally, so does being a scientist.
The average sports fan doesn't think twice about expressing an opinion as to why his favorite team isn't doing well, which coaches should be fired and what players ought to be traded. That seems to be the way science is headed as well. Maybe that's a good thing if it means people really care. But is it a good idea for a football coach to base his decisions on fan opinion?
In the 11 December issue of New Scientist, Dan Hind suggests that since taxpayer money funds a large amount of research, taxpayers ought to have some input into how that money is allocated. Hind argues that the track record in other areas of science is disappointing. He says that economics, for example, has "become a servant of the finanical sector", and quotes Philip Augar in saying that "it is little wonder that so much academic research was supportive of the financial system". Apparently the economists didn't warn us about the trouble we were headed for because they were in thrall to the existing system.
Hind goes on to suggest that state-funded science "has also tended to drive the whole thrust of the economy in directions that favour powerful elites". He cites the development of copycat drugs and "treatments for depression and anxiety that have few clear benefits". Witness how much money goes to diseases like AIDS that have celebrity spokespersons compared to the funding that goes into less popular diseases. Hind, however, doesn't argue that the 'elite' are determined in large part by the adulation of the populus. He does argue that scientists "for the most part find themselves working for the military-industrial bureaucracy" and that much of science is an 'arm's length subsidiary of the Department of Defense'.
It is true that many of us do work in areas relevant to big industry and to the military industrial complex. The Department of Defense is one of the ultimate 'early adopters'. Their willingness to pay for expensive product produced in low quantities is what makes development, improvement and the efficiencies of scale possible. But the DoD also is among the most interested organizations in funding energy efficiency improvements — just because they use so doggone much of it.
Hind's suggestion is that some — and he does stress "some" — of the money that subsidizes private industry should be given to a body that would allocate the funding according to democratic vote. Hind is not targeting basic science funding, but he doesn't explain exactly what money he is talking about. Much of the science funding that goes to private industry from the government goes to start-up businesses. Much of the money going to larger businesses is for commericalization of proven technologies. I'm not clear exactly what pots of money he is suggesting we use.
Let's accept the existence of those pots of money for the sake of argument. Hind suggests that if a system like the one he is proposing had been in place, those few economists that predicted the crash we are now experiencing would have had more access to publicity, and that public concern about the environment could be focused into more alternative energy research.
This seems to me to be a type of policy naivete. The 'failures' that Hind mentions as his motivation for moving toward more public input in science funding aren't a reflection of a system that doesn't work. They are a reflection of the fact that science is hard and sometimes it doesn't work. That's not a failure of the system.
My concern over Adrian Smith's project and Dan Hinds' idea is that they both are based on the fundamentally incorrect belief that everyone's opinions should carry equal weight. If I found I had cancer, I wouldn't ask my research colleagues (all very smart people) for their recommendations. I'd ask a doctor. I'd specifically ask an oncologist. A general oncologist's opinions would rank slightly lower than those of an oncologist who specializes in the type of cancer I had. I don't do my own dentistry or serve as my own literary agent, either. It's not because I'm too important or I don't have time: It's because I'm not qualified to do it myself and I defer to people whose opinions I value.
The founding fathers believed that people of a certain class had a responsibility to become educated and participate in law, government, medicine, etc. They saw that responsibility as being a birthright of the landed white male gentry; however, the essence of their idea holds water. An opinion does not have an a priori value. It acquires value because of the qualifications of the person putting it forward.
Science should be open to anyone who wants to make the effort to understand it and how it works. But asking people to do a blind search on a handful of terms and then make a determination as to the 'value' of the research is absurd. Does Dan Hind really think that the average person who was enjoying living in a house they couldn't actually afford and watching their property values soar would have seen a need to fund the small fraction of economists who were warning the bubble was near burst stage? Or that the outcome of democratic science is going to be anything other than people advocating for research money to spent in areas that have touched them personally?
A lot of the press on this issue has emphasized that this is exactly why scientists need to be clear about the 'Broader Impacts' of their research and strive to make their work understandable to non-specialists. But just as it is unfair to hold teachers entirely accountable for the progress of their students, it is not solely the scientists' responsibility to make the importance and relevance of their work clear to the public.
While we strive to make it accessible and understandable, we need to not lose sight of the fact that science is not democratic.