Sure, there was the usual American outrage that is only present when a Republican does something perceived as anti-science (science media criticisms of Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who wants to put warning labels on food that is not organic, for example, are scant) but we clearly have an administration that needs more oversight, accountability and transparency, not less. A free hand from the media has led to the administration feeling like they can get away with anything - in science, it has been unchallenged editing of science reports, refusals to fund some types of science and simply ignoring results that defy political desires. Assocated Press and Fox News reporters who have been victims of Watergate-style government harassment aren't feeling like the Obama administration should have more activities closed off from the public.
The bill was not going anywhere but it gave science media the opportunity to dry hump the 'Republicans are anti-science' corpse one more time. To anyone who read it, the proposal really didn't address anything the National Science Foundation didn't insist it already did; thoroughly and meticulously, they claim. It didn't mention peer review at all, despite the shrieks from the same science media who invented the myth that Republicans banned human embryonic stem cell research, it vaguely tasked the National Science Foundation with certifying that its research is valuable to the interests of the nation and is ground-breaking and high-quality - the exact same thing the NSF claims it does right now, while spending $200,000 for a 'study' on why political candidates make vague statements.
Heck, the NSF gave out $500,000 to a pair of academics to create a site called Science 2.0. Yeah, a whole lot of really deep thought went into that approval.
It's hilarious when a government organization is terrified of being asked to do the thing it hypes itself up as already doing.
The usual suspects are circling the wagons around the NSF and claiming studies of Farmville are vital to the spirit of basic research - but Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, writing in Nature, cuts to the real heart of the matter:
The grave danger here is not that he is going to interfere with peer review but that he will discover that the real world of science — in which progress is often halting and incremental, a lot of research isn’t particularly innovative or valuable, and institutional arrangements are often more important than peer review or serendipity for determining the social value of science — doesn’t match very well to the world on which he has been sold.Yes, Rep. Lamar Smith loves science as much as anyone in politics does, but he mostly loves the hype - life on other planets, miracle vegetables and biofuels and all that stuff. Sarewitz is arguing that Smith believes in science too much, not that he is against science. And the worst thing for the NSF and all government-controlled science is discovery of how political and partisan and flawed the funding process really is. Which accountability and transparency would make clearer.
'Sold' is the operative term in his quote. There is a lot of hype about the value of every project that gets government funding, and even more salesmanship. Johns Hopkins will say it deserves $1 billion of taxpayer money per year because its research is so awesome - yet they don't want any questions from the public about how that success is quantified. Critics contend it gets $1 billion of taxpayer money per year because it is politically connected to the people who approve government grants. A Johns Hopkins researcher gets secret bonus points at review time, they say, because of the name. So, given that, why isn't the much-larger NIH under fire the same way as the NSF chronically is? Yes, the NIH gives $128 million to bogus nonsense like the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) but they don't fund political science nonsense, like over 100 political think tanks and social psychology surveys trying to see whether or not there is a genetic basic for being a political conservative. Not funding so many woo projects makes the NIH less of a target for politicians.
By "incremental" Sarewtiz means that actual transformative research has a more difficult time getting funded than 'safe' studies guaranteed to get a mediocre, yet positive, result. High-risk/high-reward research is the kiss of death for a scientist whose funding is government-controlled. If the bold first project of a young academic scientists fails, their career might be over, they will have a hard time getting another R01 grant. At least in the corporate science sector basic research is assumed to fail or at best be unlikely to lead to an application.
Grant funding is competitive and we are producing more PhDs than ever while researchers are active much longer, so it will only get more competitive. Ironically, the one way for scientists to get more projects funded would be to get behind efforts to reduce waste and duplication in NSF grants and to stop funding non-science - the very thing science media says cannot be allowed. Hundreds of real science projects each year are denied funding do that stuff that is clearly not science can claim the legitimacy of the NSF. It must be frustrating to publicly have to claim common cause while privately knowing friends and colleagues whose projects were on the bubble - maybe too risky, maybe the applicant not known enough - didn't get funded because the NSF wants to fund ad campaigns trying to convince smart females they should become physicists instead of doctors. Or fund studies of Everquest.
Politics is tough but all is not lost. The corporate world still funds almost 50% of basic research so people who don't like government control of science still have a place to go, where their work can be more creative and without all that pressure to publish and apply for more funding.