Anyone concerned about the fate of scientific research funding in the new Congress has yet more reason to worry. Scientists are already anxious about the impact of the Republicans’ plans to slash the nation’s investment in research and development, which led National Institutes of Health director researchers that their prospects for receiving funding would drop from 20% to 10%. Now the Republican House leadership is calling for the untrained general public to judge the value of National Science Foundation (NSF) research projects and submit their votes by text message and e-mail, with the promise of crafting legislation to gut funding for projects they deem unworthy.
Incoming House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has long advocated the so-called ” ” project, which was stymied when the Republicans were in the minority. Now Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE), a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, has released a that places NSF grants in the crosshairs, targeting studies purportedly focused on “computer models” of “the on-field contributions of soccer players,” as well as the modeling of “the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game and movie industries.”
Under normal circumstances, Congress sets NSF’s annual budget, but leaves it to NSF’s trained experts to judge the value of proposed research projects through a rigorous peer review process — and with good reason. The politicians who have targeted specific research proposals often have a notoriously poor grasp of the projects’ importance.
Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) once fulminated about government funding for studies of “ATMs,” under the mistaken impression that the research involved automatic teller machines. Only later did he realize that the study involved Asynchronous Transfer Mode, the communications technology underlying the Internet. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) blasted a study of bear DNA that turned out to be essential to preserving Sarah Palin’s “Momma Grizzlies” under the Endangered Species Act.
Like Governor Sanford and Senator McCain, Congressman Smith grossly misstates the nature of the research projects he cavalierly seeks to slash. The “soccer player” study he references conducting “nanoscience, environmental engineering, earthquake engineering, chemical sciences, media research and tobacco research.” The “video game and movie industries” study “pursuing fundamental advances in computational methods while solving several particularly challenging sound rendering problems,” to allow the U.S. military, among others, to create more realistic combat simulators for military trainees.
By selecting the National Science Foundation as their first target, the House Republican leadership has already sent a chilling message to researchers. By circumventing NSF’s painstaking peer review process and inviting the lay public to vote by text message on research projects they grossly caricature, the new House leadership risks dragging American science to horrifying new lows.