Shrimp On A Treadmill - The NSF Under Fire
    By Hank Campbell | May 26th 2011 11:19 AM | 55 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    In a report sure to send left-wing science blogging into a tizzy, an analysis by Sen. Tom Coburn, M.D., Republican from Oklahoma (naturally, because Republicans hate science if they object to obscure studies that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars) says the NSF is spending money foolishly.

    Obviously it is the job of politicians to occasionally make sure money is not spent foolishly, and I have long argued here that the NSF is a poor way to fund basic research and is better done in the private sector where it can be funded without showing up in ABC News reports - this just highlights why scientists should stop insisting on more taxpayer money and government oversight.  Being a political football is bad.

    I am not concerned with the indignant rage science blogging will engage in - they know nothing about money and don't care and will simply respond that 'war in Afghanistan' or subsidies for oil companies mean anything should be funded.    Again, enjoy being a political football - Science 2.0 takes no government money and is more successful than every government-funded project that has attempted to do science outreach.   And more successful than every private one too.   Instead of venting that Sen. Coburn has an R after his name, researchers of all disciplines and political persuasions should be appreciative that he is bringing this to light so good research can be funded instead.   If his numbers are accurate, and $1.2 billion alone is waste and a lot is silliness, that is money that could be better spent on real experimentation.

    Among Coburn's criticisms:

    • $300,000 to study if Farmville helps build personal relationships
    • $1.5 million for a robot that can fold laundry and takes 25 minutes to fold a towel.
    • Gelatin wrestling  in Antarctica
    • Shrimp on a treadmill

    Shrimp on a treadmill.  Yes, sick shrimp move slower than non-sick ones.

    As always, the NSF has engaged in a 'vigorous' defense of its funding practices (wow, really??) and claims they invented Google, which is sure to make Sergei Brin giggle.  And if the economy is bad and land values have fallen everywhere, should the NSF be increasing its rent from $19 million a year to $26 million?   Sure, it's taxpayer money and the government wastes money name it...but that is not a defense.   No snowflake in an avalanche can take the blame.

    towel-folding robot
    It folds your towels!  But takes 25 minutes.

    Laundry-folding robots have some value, of course.   By trying to make advances in what I will call non-linear neuroscience, for example, we could help people with brain injuries in the future but the shrill militants, who only come out when it's a Republican doing the talking, think they need to circle the wagons around all projects, even for studying group dynamics in EverQuest 2.

    Not me.   We could stop funding 100% of evolutionary psychology (example: $587,068 from the NSF to try and determine if we are genetically conservative or liberal) and science would not be impacted one bit.

    Not being trusted guides for the public - all the public, not just fellow progressives - is why science blogging is barely noticeable in overall science media.   There is plenty to criticize about politicians on the left and right and their stances on science, it would just be nice if we weren't the only ones who criticize both sides.


    One man's drink is another's poison?  There's been a lot of good applied work coming out of MMO studies, such as group dynamics in WoW, that counts as useful resource.  Shannon Appelcline has some mainstream summaries of it.  One application is for developing viable micropayments, which is a good case of chicken-egg (you can't do micropayments until someone proves micropayments are viable) that basic research can help.

    Then there's clicking shrimp, which helps nanotech.  Anyway, you can write _any_ science or venture as silly.  I think you're using some framing here, and I thought you were generally opposed to the use of framing rather than discussion.  I could frame "American corporations spend billions trying to differentiate sugar water, showing the myth that competition provides efficiency is wrong".  It's accurate, but it ain't right.  Saying the NSF funds 'silly stuff', I think, ignores the real problems that need to be fixed with how funding is assigned.


    The context is all of the outrage I am seeing from people saying this guy hates science because he is a Republican.  I know a lot of researchers who have to get funding and many of them criticize the process and the fact that a lot of goofy stuff gets funded.   You must know people who feel that way also.

    $580,000 to study whether online dating site users are racist in the post-Obama era?   $200,000 to study of why political candidates make vague statements?   What defense is there for that?

    If scientists take this paper as a gift - because researchers are unwilling to criticize the NSF (or the NIH or any of the others) lest they damage their chances - and use it as an agent of change, it means a lot more research gets funded.   I am actually okay with Jell-O wrestling in the South Pole - there isn't a lot of fun stuff to do there - but if $3 billion is wasted, that means 10,000 science projects could have been funded and were not.

    The NSF does fund 'silly stuff'.  Pretending all science is equal isn't constructive.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    $1.5 million for a robot that can fold laundry and takes 25 minutes to fold a towel
     Sounds like a teenager simulation robot to me. Does it then drop them on the floor?

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    Sounds like a teenager simulation robot to me. Does it then drop them on the floor?
    It's not that realistic.  In a bubble, as Sandy said, almost anything can look silly.   Certainly if we want robots that do our laundry in the future they will be clunky and expensive now.  The question Sen. Coburn asks is why it is imperative the government pay for it.   Is there no market?

    I can answer from the private sector perspective - in the 1990s we loved that the government was taking over so much research, it meant we did not have to fund it.  Researchers have since then begun to believe corporations don't fund basic research but, in reality, the ratio is 60/40 and if it went back to being like it was before the NSF existed, the private sector would fill the gap.   If, as said, the NSF only funds 10% of projects, and they want them to be 'transformative', Coburn's paper is a welcome wake-up call.   They now have an excuse to fix the issues without interference from political powers above.
    A very interesting piece, and it raises some serious questions. How do we determine what is research worth funding when that money comes from taxpayers? Research can be easily misinterpreted. I remember McCain making fun of fruit fly research. Obviously, he wasn't aware that fruit flies are the workhorse of eukaryotic genetics. It's easy to make fun of research when you don't understand it.

    However, I agree, overall with the sentiment of this article. A lot of money is just wasted. One wonders if that wouldn't occur if more research was privately funded.

    Fruit flies are a great example of blogging reaction gone awry, which was the focus of this tirade.    The money was criticized, of course, for going to fruit fly research in France.   And progressive science bloggers flipped out because of how dumb Republicans must be about science.   Who was the first one to note the Drosophila melanogaster in question is not actually a fruit fly?  Me.    The much smarter people in biology blogging ironically took that at face value while they were criticizing that a Republican didn't do any research on how important research was.

    Like I said in my comment to Sandy above, even if the government wants to continue to fund research - and the private sector is happy to let us all pay for it - cutting $3 billion in waste (if Sen. Coburn's numbers are accurate) means maybe 10,000 more researchers get funded that are denied right now.  Or good projects get more money.   But anything is better than funding a researcher to play WoW for a year.
    Oliver Knevitt
    My research is into how soft bodied things fossilize under extraordinary circumstances. This is not a research topic that is going to earn any money for the British taxpayer, nor is it really a problem that most people lay awake wondering about. If I'm brutally honest, the amount of people that give a shit about paleontology (especially the paleontology of soft bodied faunas) is probably dwarfed by those who use farmville, so in that context, my research should really be in for the chop and that $300,000 is a bargain. But, seemingly "worthless" research such as mine, I would like to believe, is important in driving the field of paleontology forwards, and to lose the funding would mean that the field would grind to a halt - which (I hope) nobody wants. We can only hope that funding body committees are learned enough in the disciplines that they chair to recognise important research to fund, so that, yeah, we don't waste money, but equally, we don't lose the baby with the bathwater and veto projects that help move disciplines in the right direction.

    we don't waste money, but equally, we don't lose the baby with the bathwater and veto projects that help move disciplines in the right direction.
    Exactly, and Sen. Coburn is not advocating that.  He is a former M.D. and regards himself as a man of science.  He is against waste and frivolity with taxpayer money and didn't pull any punches because it is a science agency.

    I should note, since the militant bloggers I am criticizing will not, that he isn't just focused on science, nor does he contend the NSF does no good work.  He is critical of the Joint Strike Fighter program costs, for example, funding for political 'studies, poetry in zoos and too many things to count.  He is, basically, the kind of 'consumer advocate' we all say we want - until he hits close to home.

    He has never claimed that basic research has no value but some in the science community railing against him contend that all 'research' has value, even when it is clearly value-less.  Farmville research has no legitimate government-financing interest.  The company behind Farmville generates $500,000,000 per year so if they want to establish that it builds interpersonal relationships, they can fund that study the way Pepsi funds studies saying soft drinks are okay for kids.

    And $1.2 billion of the $3 billion he gripes about is outright waste, not studies he happens not to like.   4,000 researchers did not make the funding cut because the NSF is too lazy to keep accurate books?   That is a travesty.

    Academics already work for very little money.  If as many as 10,000 are having their careers impeded because they can't get a grant due to silliness or waste, scientists should be applauding Coburn for trying to fix that system.
    I don’t want to live in a world where we have to take Pepsi’s word for it that their products are safe for kids.

    Gerhard Adam
    That's a deliberate misrepresentation of the funding issue. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    That must be a Scienceblogs reader who came to a real science site by accident - they all have Pepsi on the brain over there because they sold a blog to that company and it was a big deal.  Heck, Diet Coke, much less real Coke, sells more than Pepsi but Coke is never invoked by insufferable anti-corporate types who think only the government can do science.  Coke needs better marketing.
    This is actually the first blog, science or otherwise, that I have ever read. And I am not anti-corporate or anti-Pepsi; I was just running with the example you gave. I'm not saying Pepsi shouldn't fund studies of its products; I'm just saying that there should also be outside assessments.

    I am not hostile to your sentiments; we clearly need to have a rational discussion about government's role in funding research. I am just concerned that this Coburn report (and media portrayals of it) will fuel elements that are hostile to all basic research.

    Thanks for clarifying - it gave me a chance to poke fun at those political sites masquerading as science and who are using this to promote the idea that Republicans are eeeeeevil and anti-science because they don't think spending a million dollars to cure the shortage of poetry in our nation's zoos is actually, you know, science.
    I was merely responding to a throw-away comment above ("...the way Pepsi funds studies saying soft drinks are okay for kids."). All I'm saying is that we can't rely simply on private industry to tell us that their own products are safe. I am cynical enough to believe that if Pepsi funds studies of its own products, it will only make public the findings which reflect positively on its products. This is tangential to the NSF funding issue.

    It's not so much Coburn's report that bothers me; the NSF should not be above criticism. But the way it is conveyed on TV smacks of "lowest common denominator" appeal, and is infuriatingly simplistic in its portrayal of some of the basic research projects:

    BTW I am in agreement with your comments below.

    To follow up on my own comment (which made me seem much more anti-corporate than I am), private industry would not be alone in selectively publishing results. I have worked in several government-funded research labs, and "negative results" are generally not published, leaving open the possibility that some other research group will waste time and money re-doing those same experiments. Count me in favor of a journal, website, or other database dedicated to negative results!

    Sure, faux derision is designed to provoke outrage but cheerleading for silliness is no better.
    What is odd is that you think scientists in corporate America are unethical but scientists in academia are okay.   When AAAS held a panel on how awesome chocolate was for our health, all but one of the academics were funded by the Mars Candy company even though they were also funded by taxpayers.    So were they ethical or not?

    Here is the video embedded, since I know non-members can't do that:

    Gerhard Adam
    All I'm saying is that we can't rely simply on private industry to tell us that their own products are safe. I am cynical enough to believe that if Pepsi funds studies of its own products, it will only make public the findings which reflect positively on its products.
    ... and how does any of this have anything to do with research?   Product safety and food safety are both regulatory agencies within the government that have little or nothing to do with funding basic research.  Do you really believe that food safety is subject to funding requests to the NSF?  If not, then you're misrepresenting the issue by this kind of statement.

    Private businesses already spend billions of dollars on advertising to convince the public about things that aren't scientific and are intended to advance their own market position.  What does that have to do with anything?  Of far greater concern would be "studies" that are funded without disclosure so that professionals may be mislead (i.e. pharmaceuticals publishing results for doctors) into thinking that such "studies" are peer-reviewed.  However, in my view, those are issues that should involve legal questions rather than funding issues.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I see your point; I didn't mean to imply that NSF funds studies that have bearing on soft drink safety. It was intended to be a more general comment about the necessity of gov't agencies like those you mentioned--food & product safety--whose interests are not directly tied to the success of the product in question. I may have come off a bit edgy on this topic because I know a lot of ultra-free market types who are against any form of govt funded research, product safety testing, you name it. They jump at any opportunity to criticize government involvement in anything other than fire, police, or national defense. I don't feel the need to discuss it further here.

    Hi Hank,

    upon seeing what the topic of your post was, I had decided to read it with an open mind. I see your concerns and there's some things I would agree on in there and some I wouldn't. But then I ask myself the question: is he concerned by the waste, or by the mechanism of science being state-funded altogether ?

    I think one can't decide on the soundness of your (or sen. Coburn's) arguments until one addresses that issue, because of the ridiculous magnitude of the waste we are discussing with respect to the cost spent in an hour by the Defence department. It just makes no sense, otherwise.

    First of all, can all basic science research be "good" ? What is the metric, finding applications (which the private sector is interested in) or rather, furthering our knowledge ? I strongly object to the former approach. If you let research be funded by the private sector you'll lose a lot of stuff that looks ridiculous but might change the world.

    I will go as far as to say that I believe that an approach whereby, through the strictest scrutiny, the "wastes" you mention got reduced, all of our science would come out a loser. Unless we agree that one of the goals is knowledge and not just applications, the rest of the matter will always find us in disagreement.

    So it boils down to the question, "Is there a reason to support basic research ?". Try answering this with an open mind.

    I like to think I have an open mind because I came to Science 2.0 from a private sector company where in order to have an application we had to do a lot of basic research first and pay for it.   Literally no one in academia could do it or had done it and we did not want to wait until someone applied for a grant, got it, worked on it for years, etc.  The problems were basic research but the money was finite.  And it worked.  Basic research made the difference and a similar story has been told in thousands of companies who would be surprised at any belief only the government does basic research.

    The NSF is 60 years old.  Prior to that, the government funded almost no research, basic or applied.  After World War II, the government decided they wanted to control the kind of science that was done because science was vital to the future - government had come up with the atomic bomb.   So the motivation to do basic research was not to insure scientific freedom or creativity, it was to control it using money.

    I just can't believe if we did not spend $3 million on studying a video game, science would collapse.  The billion-dollar company creating the video game would fund such a study if it had value, in a basic or applied sense.    Instead, 10 researchers with good ideas did not get funded so something silly could be.  And the waste outside funding silliness is inexcusable, especially if it is $1.2 billion.   That's 4,000 PhDs who did not get a research grant because the NSF is too lazy to control its waste and maybe 16,000 post-docs who did not get a job.

    What the DoD spends is not really an issue; you would not hire a researcher at the LHC whose argument was, 'you waste money on other researchers so waste it on me instead' you would only hire them if they added value.   

    I am not arguing to eliminate basic research, I am arguing against bloggers who react to criticism of the NSF as being a need to defend studies they know are stupid - every researcher I have met, without exception, has told me a story about grant process stupidity and silly studies that got funded while real cutting-edge basic research - that might fail - can't get funded.   This Senator is giving people a chance to change that system, but if researchers say "Change nothing, the NSF can't be any better than it is" because he is a Republican then the waste will stay but the budget will be reduced.
    A salute to Senator Coburn and his staff for their excellent work in revealing a welfare program for unemployable scientists that only the NSF could justify with such irrelevant research that ends up on resumes - - not in meaningful products that will enable Americans to compete in global markets. Senator Coburn nailed the fundamental issue when he stated this was not the time to spend $7B of taxpayer funds on research that has no more deliverable results than paper that describes jibberish on folding towels, picking toys and similar absurdities.

    In fact, NSF is still under the mistaken principle that STEM means Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics when the "M" is supposed to represent Manufacturing, which is the result of relevant STE, as it is to economic productivity and national prosperity (yes, mathematics is fundamental to all four elements of STEM, as long as Manufacturing is the intended outcome).

    For the luddites who commented on Senator Coburn's inability to comprehend how vital Science and Technology research is to our nation, look at his resume and those of his staff. He is among the brightest minds we've ever had in the US Senate, he fully understands research, advanced technologies, transitioning R&D to meaningful products, and has held real jobs doing so before the Senate. He is such a bright spot in the mess of our dysfunctional Congress that I am sending a campaign contribution for his reelection as soon as I finish my comment.

    I hope others will join me in thanking him for his excellent report and his position to seek relevancy and accountability from an organization who is spending our taxdollars and driving us further into the most massive deficit in American history on wasteful scientific welfare that seldom has produced jobs for America. Senator Coburn is precisely the kind of leader we need to take back America for Americans so our country will survive this current crisis brought on by wasteful spending, and once again prosper in a new era of global competitors! Thank you Senator Coburn...and keep up the great work!

    Gerhard Adam
    In that one post you've demonstrated the one danger to that way of thinking.  By bringing "manufacturing" into it, you've basically argued that government should not participate in research at all, and that it should all be privately funded.  More importantly you've also insured that no basic research can be done because you've turned the entire process into a purely economic problem. more deliverable results than paper that describes jibberish...
    That phrase is enough to ensure that I oppose the senator's position.  Instead of legitimately addressing the funding issues as Hank mentioned, it simply indicates that ignorance rules and that if you don't understand the paper, then it must be gibberish and not worthy of funds.

    ... and here I thought you wanted America to participate in the future.

    Quite frankly I'm tired of hearing taxpayers get all upset over what amounts to "chump change" in the budget while the government, military, and private sectors use 100 times that amount to enrich themselves.  I agree with Hank that there are many studies that might be wasteful, and many that should be funded by the private sector.  However, I don't agree with the narrow-minded view that if research doesn't translate into jobs we should abandon it.  That's simply short-sighted and probably the most foolish notion of all.
    Mundus vult decipi
    In fairness to Coburn, he never says that.   The commenter you responded to said that.   His paper was on eliminating waste and non-science from the National Science Foundation, not an insistence that all research be applied.    But 99% of bloggers on their rants about this did not read his paper either, which is another issue.   I referenced the similar tirade about Palin criticizing fruit fly research in France because supposedly smart bloggers made similar errors then - in not knowing the critter wasn't even a fruit fly but instead just going on the usual anti-Republican rant.
    Gerhard Adam
    I understand, and my response was intended to point out how the political lines are already being drawn regardless of the merits of Coburn's position.  This is one reason why alot of those that espouse conservative or Republican viewpoints are considered to be anti-science, because they invariably present their arguments as being rabidly economic.

    I happen to agree with you on this, but I still find it annoying to hear people wanting to turn everything into a "taxpayer" issue despite the fact that both political parties have spent money like drunken sailors with no accountability.   Personally I'm only concerned that this issue is far too nuanced to be intelligently approached by people with a political agenda, because ultimately all those individuals are "anti-science" if they can find a way to funnel money towards their objectives (whether it be saving the homeless or saving the rich).
    Mundus vult decipi
    Sure, Tommaso made the same point but if a budget for science is finite then it doesn't matter how much money DoD or Energy wastes, scientists should want the money science does get to be spent as efficiently as possible.     I think the scientists and bloggers getting hysterical are missing a golden opportunity to get more science funded - they could do it simply by agreeing less money should be wasted.
    Gerhard Adam
    I tend to agree, but what becomes wasteful and who makes the determination?  I think we simply need to rethink the entire process of how such research is classified.  If there is an interested party in research then they should fund it directly (government or industry).  If it is base research than it should focus specifically on science with social "sciences" separated out to a different agency (if needed).

    Specifically I'm thinking that basic research shouldn't have to compete with popular trends or applications either.  We need to recognize that basic research may not have any immediate benefits, but it is still an essential step in the acquisition of new knowledge.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Sure, the fluff non-science studies he points out are a relatively small dollar amount - I doubt any money goes toward applied research from the NSF since, in rationalizing what they fund, they had to go back 60 years to find 5 examples of actual applications that resulted from their funding and some are tangential at best, like claiming they get credit for the creation of Google and the Internet.  DARPA and NASA also fund a lot of overlap with the NSF, as do a dozen other groups.  The CBO lists the mandate of the NSF as “to expand scientific knowledge without regard to commercial applications.”

    The big concerns are waste and duplication - and he is right.  If the Dept of Energy is funding energy research, why is the NSF?   The waste is inexcusable.

    The president, most of Congress and everyone here has agreed that there should be more science funding - but if the NSF can't properly manage what it has, they shouldn't get more to piss away.  The NSF mission is to fund transformative research that finds “novel” approaches to significant scientific questions but a survey of NSF grant reviewer found “reviewers tended to believe that  transformative research was not prevalent among the proposals that they had reviewed (over 60% indicated that less than 10% of the proposals they had reviewed constituted transformative research)”  which reaffirms the point I keep making - everyone in science knows the process is flawed but instead of jumping in and saying "let's take the opportunity to fix it" they are defending it. 
    Gerhard Adam
     The NSF mission is to fund transformative research that finds “novel” approaches to significant scientific questions but a survey of NSF grant reviewer found “reviewers tended to believe that  transformative research was not prevalent among the proposals that they had reviewed (over 60% indicated that less than 10% of the proposals they had reviewed constituted transformative research)”
    This sounds more like typical government behavior, where if you have the money you need to spend it, even if there's nothing worthwhile to spend it on.  This is a perpetual "fear" or mindset of government agencies, where the concern is that if they don't spend their allocated budget, then they won't get the funds when they need them.  It's part of the nature of government funding and agency survival (since it doesn't promote honesty).  The same thing happens in private industry where any department that has money left over in their budget will invariably find themselves facing a cut next time the budget comes up for consideration.
    Mundus vult decipi
    My issue with Senator Coburn's/Hank's argument is that its hard to predict which scientific projects/research topics will be widely successful beforehand. The history of science is filled with 'happy accidents', such as Fleming's classic discovery of penicillin from bread mold, that I have a hard time believing we could create a funding system that can effectively separate the 'wasteful' science from the effective kind. In particular, I'm thinking about the arguments made here (except applied to scientific research instead of health care):

    Also, the duplicative research issue is a canard. There isn't likely going to be much savings from combining all research funding into a single agency. Its like saying that if we reduced each state to having only one senator (to remove the duplication of senators), the U.S. Senate would become more effective. Its also reminiscent of President Obama's complaint about how salmon regulations are covered by two agencies. It ignores that there is a perfectly rational reason for this: one agency covers freshwater (which salmon use to spawn) and the other covers saltwater (where salmon spend much of their life).

    My issue with Senator Coburn's/Hank's argument is that its hard to predict which scientific projects/research topics will be widely successful beforehand.
    I agree, basically, there are lots of happy accidents in basic research - except the NSF funds nothing that does not look like it will be successful and its mandate is supposed to be "transformative" science.   Which of the following do you think is a good investment and may lead to unanticipated science success?

    - $476,000 to try and predict how often people lie in online and text messages
    - $2,000,000 to figure out that people who often post pictures on the internet from the same location at the same time are usually friends
    - $200,000 to study why political candidates make vague statements
    - $609,160 for a Wolfquest  game, to supposedly teach conservation issues about wolves

    Or studies on whether birth order impact willingness to take economic risks or whether or not
    boys like to play with trucks and girls like to play with dolls or how rumors get started.

    There is a rather long list.  No one argues about the value of basic research in science.   If expert grant reviewers cannot decide whether or not these things are worthwhile then they need to be fired; or at least not have such a large budget and we can give it to the DoE, who at least understands what energy is.
    Gerhard Adam
    I know there are some that will get upset, but in my view none of those listed qualify as science.  They are all "social science", which is a completely different issue and shouldn't be in the same group.

    Even the issue about conservation issues about wolves, is more political than involving anyone that actually lives or deals with wolves.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Except you are arguing about the value are basic research. Its clear that you (and Senator Coburn) strongly disagree with the value of these specific projects and, possibly social science research in general, but that doesn't make them basic research. In fact, Senator Coburn's report quotes the CBO definiton of basic research as "research intending “to expand scientific knowledge without regard to commercial applications," which applies to the studies you highlighted.

    Personally, I have no idea if those projects would lead to transformative science, because I personally find that its extremely hard to predict the success or failure of a scientific endeavor beforehand. If you've found a foolproof method to separate scientific waste from success, then please let me know, because I could sure use it in my own research. My personal suspicion is that most developed countries have strong scientific programs because
    1. They spend a lot on research regardless of the results (a result confirming what you already know is progress because it provides a scientific basis for what was previously just an assumption).
    2. They have developed a strong community of scientists and researchers in as many fields as possible to maximize the chance of cross-disciplinary discovery and invention.

    That means government agencies in these countries will inevitably fund research that will have little to no benefit to society. I just don't see how you can reduce this waste in a systematic manner that doesn't impact truly transformational research.

    I have never once - in 5 years here - diminished the value of basic research.  And certainly not before that, since a very successful company was founded on basic research.  I instead argue against waste and stupidity.   

    If no one can draw a line about what is value and what is not, then the government should be out of the funding business.   The NSF has only existed for 60 years whereas science has existed for 3,000 years because government funding of science is new.   The NSF is the only government body that prides itself on literally funding all non-medical science so if they can't even figure out what science is, that budget needs to be parsed out to experts in specific science areas, like the DoD, the DoE, NASA, etc. and not to a general body that can't even figure out what constitutes science and what constitutes academics cataloging Grateful Dead music and a museum for old neon signs in Vegas - the government funded that too.
    We obviously can determine the value of scientific research, but mostly in retrospect. The 48 studies that Senator Coburn mentioned are easy to pick on because they haven't led to any transformative breakthroughs. However, the problem is still how do you separate beforehand the transformative from wasteful research without getting less transformative science. The NSF's method certainty isn't perfect, as Senator Coburn's review shows, but his solution to defund the NSF's Social, Behavioral, and Economic Directorate seems counter-productive to me. The best method we've discovered so far is peer review, which still produces quite a bit of wasteful or unproductive research.

    Also, why do you think NSF funds more wasteful research than the DoD, DoE, NASA, etc.? Just because they mostly fund natural, instead of social, sciences doesn't mean they are immune from poor funding decisions. I think that if you support funding basic science, then you have to accept that there will be significant amounts of wasted money, but that we will come out ahead as a society because the benefits of the transformative research will heavily outweigh the costs of wasteful research.

    Also, why do you think NSF funds more wasteful research than the DoD, DoE, NASA, etc.?
    Because NASA, DoE, DoD, etc. do not fund non-science research and call it research.   That's the crux of that aspect - Science is its middle name.  Those studies have nothing to do with science, unless science is some meaningless arbitrary word like 'Smurf'.

    The waste has no defense but if all the many government bureaucracies waste 50% just to give away money then they need to be out of funding.   
    It cuts both ways Hank. There is an Australian libertarian site where people are constantly stating that the Left is anti-science. The claim is ridiculous because with the possible exception of the Amish no-one is anti-science. Our world is replete with scientific based technologies. Sure, the alternative health crowd and some post modernists may appear to be anti-science, while they drive off in their cars with bluetooth enabled so they can talk on their mobile to get home to their air-conditioned house which they enter through a remote controlled car garage.

    There is hardly a week that goes by when I do not see news of research published that just seems silly. The problem is not just about government funding it is also about credentialism and the publish or perish drive. I suspect that transformative science, the type of research and analysis that gives rise to fundamental reappraisals of the relevant phenomena, is a result of years of painstaking hard work that is not necessarily reflected in the citation indexes.

    Should our society, either privately or publicly, be spending so much money on the examples given above? No, social science is neither transformative nor rigorous. My concern is that amidst the welter of so much silly research the important research, the stuff that really can move us forward, is lost in the flood of thousands of publications that are essentially derivative, misleading, and all too often a waste of our intellectual and financial resources.

    I agree that a preferable situation would be move more research into the private sector. But I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Here in Australia some of the govt funded research bodies have done outstanding work. I'm not prepared to assume that market processes can address all the research challenges because often there is no immediate or apparent long term reward in a research agenda. So I think we will always need some govt funded research. Govt funded research should be focused on goals that are not being addressed by the private sector. Filling in the gaps so to speak. So the best approach might be to have governments survey all private based research initiatives and then determine what basic research areas are being neglected.

    I commend Senator Coburn for his expose of NSF funding decisions and Mr. Campbell's article. Science means to know, and there are several motivations for acquiring new knowledge: future, ill defined benefits to society, near term rice bowl benefits to the scientist, personal fulfillment for the scientist, or benefits (normally short term) for some profit entity . The last two are called subsidies. The conflict is economic, there are more wants than money to pay for them. This is an acute problem; some 98% of all the science PhD s, who have ever existed, are now working. The conflict directly leads to another: who decides, and what is their basis for spending taxpayer money. This is the legitimate sand box for our money - policy decider, Sen. Coburn.

    Having created a zillion technical budget estimates, and having lost a zillion - N proposals, I know it becomes a mind game; what is the real criteria of the decider? Often times, the work is going to his buddy, my proposal is simply for the record. Often, I conclude that he is a dummy, ignorant of the central key aspects, or their associated costs (a $50 budget for a needed $100 job, does not yield half of the knowledge; it yields nothing, or falsehoods.) And, for several reasons, I define a break out for travel and entertainment, to fund the midnight sandwich for my people. (I have never run across the NSF funded girl jello wrestling contest discovered by the Senator.)

    I do not believe that the decider, in private industry, or the government is per se, more ethical. I do believe the government decider is poorly managed, ergo useless work is funded. The private sector errs in the demand for results in the short horizon. Example of both: Tsunami science has exploded since the crippled Japanese nukes, at Fukushima, was designed. We know the results. What organization funded tsunami research work? when? was it robust enough? why were the results ignored (not a science question, just important)?

    It is my tentative judgment that US science funding has been flawed, as Campbell notes, by being too centralized, after the Manhattan Project. I concur with those who live off NSF money, that the funding is too small, by orders of magnitude. I would prefer the decision making to be decentralized, delegated to the professional societies, with head quarter's moneys going to diverse self policed professionals, with strong sanctions for mis spending. I do not think we get our money's worth from NSF.

    We're not going to fund the NSF any less - and we don't need to.    But by curbing the waste and non-science funding we can basically double the amount for actual science research.  If, as others noted, that mission is too difficult for a broad organization like the NSF then give the money to expert organizations like the DoE, who can fund energy research, the NIH which can do all biology, NASA, DoD and plenty of others who have no problem keeping their funding to their fields of expertise.

    It won't happen, of course, I can count on one hand the number of government projects that have been scuttled, but hopefully this is a wake-up call - I am still baffled that more researchers are not quietly applauding this.    Every single one knows it is a problem and they have a golden opportunity to basically double their funding and look like fiscally responsible heroes doing it, but the vocal scientists are turtling up and doing the usual 'Republicans and Fox News hate science' rain dance.
    Actually, industry does not fund much breadth in basic science. And they should not. Companies should be looking for short term payoffs and focusing there. And they do. Basic research is orders of magnitude too risky for companies to pay for. The payoff often is decades later. There are innumerable examples of this. Industry leaders agree that the government should be funding basic research (see "The Gathering Storm" report, and its recent sequel, China now is investing heavily in basic research and they are on a 50 year plan. We seem to have trouble thinking beyond the next election cycle, quarterly profit report, or tomorrow's blog.

    The National Academies exist to promote more government funding for science and few corporations disclose how much of their R&D is 'basic' research because there is no need to break it out.  The idea that corporations only fund applied, short term projects was invented by academics.  For 3,000 years science got by with no government funding.
    As a private sector guy, like I said, I loved that the government wanted to fund basic research -  only because we had to fund less that way.   But we would have funded it all if the government had not.   Good thing Bell Labs never produced anything with all that money they spent on basic research.   The private sector really dodged a bullet there.
    You seem to be arguing two different things Hank. On one hand you say "NSF is a poor way to fund basic research and is better done in the private sector ". On the other hand you seem to be arguing that you are simply against waste at the NSF and that the budget should be maintained but better spent. So which is it? I would say the latter is a more defensible position. "For 3,000 years science got by with no government funding." Yes, and science and technology advanced glacially in that time, compared to the last 100 years. The problem with private sector is that they are seemingly more and more motivated by shorter term profits and less and less in true innovation and discovery. Bell Labs & Xerox PARC are from a different era when the leaders of these companies (member of the Greatest Generation?) saw value in building something for the long term. Now what is rewarded is on a much shorter time scale. Even then, there were great battles in Xerox (for example) that they shouldn't be funding a bunch of eggheads to come up with silly computer interfaces (when it was OBVIOUS that only a few people would ever need a computer). The hardliners won out, because "dammit, our company makes copy machines! Not computer interfaces!" and shortly thereafter, when the copier patents ran out, the rest of the world started making copiers and Xerox went from being a giant, to yet another midrange tech company. Who has the long term vision and wisdom to know what will be useful, important, impactful? The leaders of Xerox didn't! Why would we trust our nations basic research endeavor to these people, many of which do not have a long term timeline? Realistically, they are trying to make a profit in a reasonable amount of time (and I don't begrudge them that!) Do I think that the NSF funding "research" on world of warcraft is stupid? It sure sounds that way to me, and I am not convinced that such research has a place at NSF. But I also know that historically there have been many discoveries in obscure areas that sound "stupid" but end up being transformative in unexpected ways. And also, lets face facts, we are talking about total budgets at the NSF that probably are on the order of the budget for office supplies at the Pentagon. Literally. From an efficiency standpoint, if Coburn wants to save money, he should be holding 40 times more press conferences about the DOD waste and publishing 40 times more white papers about DOD waste. That waste is on a completely different scale. When that house is in order, then start worrying about the shrimps.

    You seem to be arguing two different things Hank. On one hand you say "NSF is a poor way to fund basic research and is better done in the private sector "
    If you want simplistic, "Republicans hate science" arguments, there is always - the NSF is a poor way to fund science, contending the improvements of the last 60 years are due to it requires some data (you won't find it), but the NSF isn't going away so my contention is researchers who don't circle the wagons around it and instead lobby for obvious changes basically double the amount of funding for science.

    Telling me how awesome basic research is - when literally no one said it isn't and I instead noted an entire company was built on non-government basic research because academia is too slow - is a straw man.    
    I don't think I stated or even implied anything about the political orientation of anybody, hence I don't think it is fair to imply that I was making a "Republicans hate science" argument, if that is what you are stating. I could be a Republican for all you know.

    If my previous post was actually about "how awesome basic research is" then perhaps you could say I was making a straw man argument, but that wasn't my point and I think you haven't summarized it correctly. If I had to summarize my point, it is that basic research (which is, as we can all agree, awesome) isn't done very much by companies anymore (your anecdote not withstanding). Basic research can have a timeline of 50 years or more, and most companies don't have that luxury. The odd chemical reaction observed and published today can become the key step in a drug synthesis 50 years from now. What company is going to do that kind of research? None.

     basic research (which is, as we can all agree, awesome) isn't done very much by companies anymore (your anecdote not withstanding)
    We can't agree on that because it is a myth created and perpetuated by academia.   The government funds 60% of US basic research because, in the aftermath of World War II, they wanted to shape the direction of science to be what the government needed.    But if academics simply want to believe that government control is better, because the diversity of academia demographically has been replaced by a lack of diversity politically, that is not the same thing as it being fact and it is not supported by data.

    My anecdote is a real-world one but it is echoed by every company in the only successful manufacturing segment remaining in America - semiconductors.  None of that basic research is now or was ever done in academia.    R&D departments exist, with a huge chunk of the money being R and not applied in any sense.   

    If there was any chance at all any government-funded research could solve the physics-induced train wreck coming in the semiconductor industry, I'd team up with that lab right now.   But it will never happen because the NSF wants to fund incremental research that will be successful, not the transformative research they claim.   

    The solution is to take the $3 billion being squandered and fund actual transformative research and then the NSF would not stoop to trying to take credit for MRIs (NASA) and the Internet (DARPA), they could have something of their own.
    I don't think Academics think that government control is better, they just want a bit of money to follow their curiosity and the government can provide it, while industry doesn't anymore (they used to). Nowadays, industry tries to use academia as a low cost contract research provider (instead of paying actual Ph.D. researchers, they get to pay pennies on the dollar to graduate students for the same scut research. Pathetic. From both ends. Industry for not hiring professional scientists, and academia for whoring themselves out to do piece work.

    I'm with you regarding transformative versus incremental research, although, in a sense the problem is, neither you nor anyone else is very good at guessing what will be transformative until after the transformation takes place. When E.M. Purcell was looking at an obscure aspect of nuclear spectroscopy (magnetic resonance), he didn't imagine the steps between that basic research and the MRI machines. He was just curious and following his bliss. I know he did this work before the NSF, but he was an academic doing basic research.

    As far as the physics induced train wreck coming in the semicoductor industry, I wouldn't worry about that. Market forces will correct that. The disparate companies will come together and using their vast financial resources, they will create an institute that will fund the basic science that is needed to advance the discipline. It will be easy, since they know exactly what needs to be known, and how to know it, it will be easy to solve. They will just aim their money laser at the problem and it will be vaporized. They can call the institute the Semiconductor Industry Institute for Basic Transformative Research. Because they have such a long term vision of their industry, I'm sure they are working on it right now.

    All jokes aside, I know more about the biotech and pharma industries than semiconductors, and I can, right now, rattle off half a dozen advancements made in academic labs, using federal research support, that are used every single day in these important industries. Protease inhibitors are hugely important class of drugs (anti-HIV, high blood pressure treatment, hepatitis treatment etc.) The understanding of protease mechanism, and how to assay them came straight out of academic labs. For example, Bernie Erlanger at Columbia university created a simple assay (the p-nitro anilide method) that allowed proteases, and their inhibitors (aka drugs) to be assayed rapidly. This came out of an academic lab, and was a fundamental tool for the creation of several generations of drugs. He probably didn't even patent it, which meant that a) he didn't get rich but b) many labs could easily and cheaply use it to advance their science. Then there was Donald Caruthers at Colorado (I believe) who figured out the chemistry of how to make oligonucleotides quickly, accurately and cheaply. He did this using NIH and NSF money. Without cheap oligonucleotides, you don't have PCR, you don't have molecular biology, you don't have biotech industry. By the way, Biotech was founded by a bunch of academics, and Pharma is full of people trained in academic labs as is the Semiconductor Industry I would imagine, or does the semiconductor industry have its own Semiconductor U, where they train all the engineers and scientists they need? Speaking of Caruthers and oligonucleotides, his work was made possible because of the work of Merrifield, who, again, working on basic research in an academic lab, came up with the idea of solid phase chemical synthesis (a truly transformative technology that was invented AS A SIDELINE in order to make a difficult peptide sequence for some eggheaded basic science project. Without solid phase chemical synthesis, Caruthers couldn't have made his oligos, without them you don't get biotech and parts of pharma. Don't you see? All this stuff, from these huge advances, to small obscure reactions, are part of the basic research endeavor of this country, a vast web of knowledge, much of it absolutely useless, some of it world changing. And people like you can't stand the fact that we can't anticipate what will be world changing versus what will be useless, we just have to give money to eggheads to follow their curiosity. Why? Because every now and then, one incredible thing pops out that changes everything. And it is a way better use of my tax dollars than a trillion a year for "national defense".

    There isn't much point in discussing this because
    I don't think Academics think that government control is better, they just want a bit of money to follow their curiosity and the government can provide it, while industry doesn't anymore (they used to). 
    is a fallacy but then 
    As far as the physics induced train wreck coming in the semicoductor industry, I wouldn't worry about that. Market forces will correct that. 
    is just silly.   How is a problem at the core of fundamental physics okay for basic research in the private sector, since you said private industry does not do any of that?    I contend instead you have never been in private industry, or you would know better than to continue to propagate something obviously false.

    The NSF is wasting 50% of the money that could be used for legitimate research and your argument is for wasting money as long as it maintains an inefficient status quo?   That is only going to work with people getting money "to follow their curiosity".
    Yes, I was being silly/sarcastic in that "market forces" paragraph.

    But I do think there is hope for your "fundamental physics problem" because NSF does really put emphasis on having practical outcomes of proposed research. If you can state in your opening page that "Solving this problem will allow for the production of a new generation of semiconductors..." well, I think that would definitely give you a leg up.

    May I ask, what is this physics problem? Is it the whole business about diffraction limits for patterning features on silicon?

    The thing about giving people money to "follow their curiosity" is that the funder gets the researcher's full intellectual power, and passion. If instead you give them money to solve a problem that the FUNDER is interested in, but the researcher isn't, thats when you get weak, uninspired crap science. The best science comes when people have their passion behind it. Sure, they may have a passion for exercising shrimps... :) But ultimately, you get that 2% that blows the lid off of things. Its actually efficient, because if you didn't do it that way, you would have 0% amazing results. When you get top down science, it rarely works. Come on! This is America! We're Mavericks here! Every single one of us has that Maverick magic. We don't want Soviet style collective science, where the grand poobah tells everyone what is important. It hasn't worked in other countries with top down science agendas. The innovative, world changing stuff comes from the USA (everyone chant with me now: U S A, U S A [repeat until hoarse]) Now, I agree that there are some exceptions to this. The Apollo project wouldn't have worked from a strictly bottom up approach. But that was mainly an engineering achievement; but so complex that you needed some top down elements. But the exploration of the edge of human understanding? That isn't for a committee. Thats for brave scientists with a hunch, willing to bust their asses to prove or disprove it. Unfortunately, sometimes that hunch has to do with a well exercised shrimp. :)

    As I said, I understood the outrage about shrimp and Jell-O but I had little issue with those.   The non-science stuff is a big concern but a relatively small amount (though enough to fund a few hundred worthy science projects), the waste is the biggest concern and I am surprised more scientists do not applaud the chance to get more funding without having to ask for it.   All they have to do is stop playing party politics and support a guy who wants to cut waste.

    At 25 nm, Moore's Law as we know it in semiconductors is done because you can no longer increase density - we're out of electrons - and instead only increase the size of chips to try and get more performance.  As you can guess if you held a laptop on your actual lap now, the heat issues will be tremendous then.   Academia just issues forth quantum computing mumbo-jumbo, something I have heard discussed and has been funded since 1995 with no progress.    So I agree with you, the NSF will not solve the problem.  The worry is they don't seem to care about important issues that require basic research, they want to produce video games no one plays and videos no one watches.

    How is evolutionary psychology worthless? It's practically the only psychology, which is almost entirely a bunk field, that pursues physical and biological explanations for natural phenomena. And there probably is a genetic predisposition for political affiliation. Some people are more inhibited and reserved naturally, and one might expect those people to be more likely to choose a conservative political position. Some people have more natural chutzpah, and these people are probably more likely to choose a liberal stance.

    As any relevant biologist knows, pretty much any trait imaginable has a genetic basis, as well as an environmental interaction, and then all kinds of universal peculiarities, random unknowns, and probably free will.

    It's not all worthless, I am not sure anyone here has ever said it is - but any time something nonspecific is used to explain everything, it explains nothing, and you are taking the 1% of serious effort in that field and absolving all of it.   If I attribute the mysteries of physics to aether or religion, that isn't a science explanation.   I don't know any (good) biologist who believes genetic determinism decides whether or not you will think black women are attractive or not - yet a world-famous evolutionary psychologist tried to make a case for that very thing.

    It's a given some things in the brain resulted from natural selection - but the kind of car grill you like and how you vote is not one of them.
    The kind of car grille you like and how you vote are not two of them, since those are separate things. See how we generalize?

    They were two separate studies but yes, you are making the point that evolutionary psychology can be valid in an infinite universe of possibilities where splitting grammatical hairs counts as science.
    Gerhard Adam
    As any relevant biologist knows, pretty much any trait imaginable has a genetic basis, as well as an environmental interaction, and then all kinds of universal peculiarities, random unknowns, and probably free will.
    You cannot simply claim contradictory elements and presume that it explains anything.  If something can be changed by the environment, then it cannot have a genetic basis.  If "free will" can override something than it cannot be "random" nor have a genetic basis.  This is simply a case of throwing everything into the mix and hoping that something has explanatory power.
    And there probably is a genetic predisposition for political affiliation. Some people are more inhibited and reserved naturally, and one might expect those people to be more likely to choose a conservative political position. Some people have more natural chutzpah, and these people are probably more likely to choose a liberal stance.
    Sure, so the only thing you'd have to prove is that there is a specific part of the brain that controls political affiliation.  Then you'd have to demonstrate that such a brain orientation is heritable and finally, you''ll have to demonstrate that it is adaptive.  Without those criteria having been met, there is no "evolutionary psychology".
    Mundus vult decipi
    "If something can be changed by the environment, then it cannot have a genetic basis."

    Can I quote you on that?

    "You cannot simply claim contradictory elements and presume that it explains anything. "

    You cannot put rare words together and presume they mean something true. If you want to speak in tongues, go to a Pentecostal church.

    Most are unable to fully appreciate the significance of a particular line of research until its application is fully understood. The ramifications of Watson and Crick's hypothetical model of DNA are unending and likely will never be fully understood. The subtle nuances associated with the interactions of this same DNA contained in biological fluids resulting in that thing we call life are truly beautiful, yet completely indescribable. Why one person leads a full and happy life suffering no reduction in cognitive ability, while another who has followed the path of righteousness throughout life ends up a slobbering idiot unable to remember anything nor attend to most rudimentary of tasks needed to survive is a mystery of vast proportion. A question for science to address.

    The problem does not lay with the NSF. The problem is rooted in the greediness of the institutions who foster less than desirable research by their investigators. Fault not the agency providing funding, instead fault those who chase the almighty dollar at the institutional level. This is where all the money tends to be wasted. You see very few false claims act cases against individual researchers, the majority are against the various institutions who chase the money.