He is, basically, a longtime knowledgeable insider into How Things Work. And he isn't a fan of how things work at the National Science Foundation.
Hey, neither am I. I once got a press release from them stating they had funded two academics to create a "Science 2.0" and I wrote one of the researchers getting the money to ask what they were doing and he deferred to the other one, saying he didn't know very much about Science 2.0. The 'expert' of the pair never wrote me back but here's hoping their $500,000 in taxpayer money went toward something useful, like a big trampoline for their office.
Each year, Senator Tom Coburn, fiscal hawk, goes after wasteful spending and last year he went after the NSF, because they funded "studies" on things like playing Everquest II and Farmville, along with duplication and other internal issues that drained money from research projects. The blogosphere and science media dutifully trotted out their 'Republicans are anti-science' meme for each other in response but Coburn was not the first to tackle wasteful spending at the NSF.
Starting way back in 1975, Miller notes, Democratic Senator William Proxmire started giving out his "Golden Fleece" awards - for the biggest wastes of money - and the first two went to the NSF. Surveys about why people fall in love, to him, were not actually science. No kidding? Fast forward to 2010; what would Proxmire think of studies on when dogs became man's best friend and analyses of what kinds of car grills people like? He'd go ballistic - but he also would have lost in a re-election primary a long time ago because he would be too practical for public office.
As an insider, but old enough to not be desiring to be part of any clique, Miller has some terrific anecdotes:
I recall suffering through a presentation about an NSF-funded study of the ethics of nanotechnology research. The investigator interviewed nanotechnology researchers in their offices, and part of her “research methodology” involved recording what kind of screen savers were on their computers.It's easy to kick around the social sciences. It's like making fun of Bigfoot believers and astrologers, though - not very satisfying. The Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate at the NSF is its own group (a whopping $255 million budget in FY 2010) and it is regarded by virtually everyone outside the clique as a puzzle - it isn't science but it is getting funding from the NSF. Their studies don't have to compete against actual science projects, they only have to compete against other social ones, so in times of limited budgets worthy projects are left to die while woo gets grants.
But the NSF are not the sole problem. In one section of Science Left Behind, Alex Berezow and I take to task the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Yes, the NIH. NCCAM is defended by a powerful Democrat so it isn't going anywhere any time soon but at least other people are starting to give it funny looks too. $130 million spent annually on research like ridiculous chelation therapy? 500 real science projects did not get funded due to that nonsense.
The NSF and the NIH don't need bigger budgets to fund more science; they need to use the budgets they have for science. Obviously, political considerations are important - that is the price scientists had to pay when they sought out greater government control of research - but if scientists raise enough alarm bells about wasteful spending, rather than attacking politicians for bringing up inconvenient truths, they can basically get more money without doing anything at all. And that is going to be good for everyone.
Waste and Abuse in Federal Research Funding by Henry Miller, Genetic Engineering &