In the name of Science?

  • 05/24/2017
  • Press Corp
Research is the lifeblood of technological innovation, which drives economic growth and keeps America competitive. Government-funded scientific research runs the gamut from studies of basic physical and biological processes to the development of applications to meet immediate needs. Unfortunately, the definition of what constitutes “science” has gradually expanded to include sociology, economics and woo-woo “alternative medicine.” Much of the spending on these disciplines by the nation’s two major funders of nonmilitary research, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, is systematically shortchanging taxpayers.

The NSF, whose mission is to ensure U.S. leadership in areas of science and technology that are essential to economic growth and national security, frequently funds politically correct but low-value research projects. A few doozies include the veiling-fashion industry in Turkey, Viking textiles in Iceland, the “social impacts” of tourism in the northern tip of Norway, and whether hunger causes couples to fight (using the number of pins stuck in voodoo dolls as a measure of aggressive feelings). Research funding in the geosciences, including climate change, is certainly legitimate, but not when it goes to ludicrous boondoggles such as a climate-change musical that cost $697,177 to produce. 

The primary culprit is the NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, known as SBE. Underlying its ability to dispense grants is the wrongheaded notion that social-science projects such as a study of animal depictions in National Geographic and a climate change musical are as important as research to identify early markers for Alzheimer’s disease or pancreatic cancer.

In January President Obama signed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which accomplished little with respect to setting funding priorities other than endorsing the only two criteria NSF had previously used to evaluate grant applications—the “intellectual merit” of the proposal and its “broader impacts” on society. The bill’s lead proponent, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, had wanted to include a “national interest” criterion defined by several factors including improving economic competitiveness, health, national security, the STEM workforce and scientific literacy.

Read more at The Wall Street Journal