Science, Technology, and Social Science Research Underpins American Prosperity and National Security – Why Then Is It Under Attack?

Obama remarks at National Academy of SciencesAs everyone knows the sequester has been a disaster for American growth, its modernization, and its built and social infrastructure. It has killed needed jobs. It has made the poor poorer, and it has made the middle class languish. Let’s be clear, this is the doing of the Republicans in Congress….not the Democrats and not the President.  It can be repealed by a single sentence in a new law and a bit of common sense, decency, and patriotism by the Republicans and a very few conservative Democrats. It has especially impacted our scientific and technological base.  Don’t hold you breath however.  But remember it has huge implications for our national security and our ability to play a constructive role in world affairs. 

A subset of this madness is some recent acts by House Republicans to attack, not “socialism” or “Obama,” but quality academic science and technology. Yes, sadly there are some of this group that are “flat earth” types, who think the world was formed 10,000 or so years ago, some even, according to polls, think the sun goes around the earth, and many more think that global change is not happening or like a recent failed presidential candidate that humans have had no role in the warming of the earth or build up of CO2 and that we should not do anything about it!

Let’s look at a couple of recent examples via actions in Congress by GOP members. The first is legislation being worked on by Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the new chair of the House of Representatives Committee of Science. Its aim is to destroy the professional peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF). It would replace a system that has worked for decades and brought us superb research with new skewed funding criteria chosen politically by the right wingers in Congress. Further, it would also aim to establish a process to determine whether the same criteria should be adopted by other federal science agencies. Their attack is especially aimed at social sciences including economics; a field they clearly know nothing about based on their pushing for policies that would draw us into a deep depression. 

The second insanity is led by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) who last month successfully (where were the Democrats?) attached language to the 2013 spending bill that prohibits NSF from funding any science research for the rest of the fiscal year unless its director certifies that it pertains to economic development or national security.

The proposed bill would force NSF to adopt three criteria in judging every grant. It would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s Web site, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) “… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science”

2) “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large”

3) “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

NSF’s existing guidelines ask peer reviewers to consider the “intellectual merit” of a proposed research project as well as its “broader impacts” on the scientific community and society.

As another pernicious act Smith’s bill requires NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board, to monitor the director’s actions and issue a report in a year. It also asks Presidential Science Advisor Holdren’s office to tell Congress how the principles laid down in the legislation “may be implemented in other Federal science agencies.”

The top Democrat on the science committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), according to ScienceInsider, sent a strong message to Smith:

“In the history of this committee, no chairman has ever put themselves forward as an expert in the science that underlies specific grant proposals funded by NSF,” Johnson wrote in a letter obtained by ScienceInsider. “I have never seen a chairman decide to go after specific grants simply because the chairman does not believe them to be of high value.”

Johnson warns Smith that “the moment you compromise both the merit review process and the basic research mission of NSF is the moment you undo everything that has enabled NSF to contribute so profoundly to our national health, prosperity, and welfare.” She asks him to “withdraw” his letter and offers to work with him “to identify a less destructive, but more effective, effort” to make sure NSF is meeting that mission.

Into this fray President Obama made a speech to the National Academy of Science (link to speech) defending the integrity of the scientific method and noting the importance of ensuring its resources, its independence, and taking on those that would insert their partisan ideology into our intellectual research and methods. 

When one thinks you have seen just about every crazy action one can imagine, the Republicans in Congress add to the foolishness and now aim to hurt our nation’s efforts to advance our knowledge, gain key insights, and encourage unbiased science and research. Our national security is based on our economic strength and on our advanced and growing Science & Technology research. Playing with it and aiming to thwart the non-political unbiased intellectual development of our society is dangerous and shortsighted.

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