The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom
A few weeks ago, we heard in the news the chilling and alarming statement that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, wants to subject all the scientific research grants of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to political scrutiny. No longer was it sufficient that the NSF conduct peer review of grants by experts in the field to determine whether they are worthy of funding. No, the House Committee has decided that they are better judges of good science that the scientific community itself, and they ought to be able to override the decisions of scientists who work in the field.
We’ve seen this kind of political interference in science before, but never at such a high level. Even more disturbing, the GOP members of the House Science and Technology Committee are not the kind of people that most of us would want judging the quality of science. They are nearly all science deniers of one sort or another. This committee includes such luminaries as Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia (an M.D., even!), who said (in a recent speech at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s Banquet):
“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist [note: Broun is NOT a real scientist] that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”
In addition to several other creationists on the panel, they also include Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin. He’s one of the loudest climate-deniers in Congress, with a list of quotes showing he’s absorbed nearly every lie from the climate denier lobby. Or how about Congressman Ralph Hall from Texas, who
was asked about climate change and said, “I don’t think we can control what God controls.” He also said he agrees with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) that climate scientists are involved in a conspiracy to receive research funding. When the reporter noted that a survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 97 percent of climate-science researchers agree that human activities have contributed to global warming, Hall responded, “And they get $5,000 for every report like that they give out,” adding, “I don’t have any proof of that. But I don’t believe ‘em.”
Or take Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who still chatters on about the debunked idea that scientists were predicting global cooling in the 1970s. Or Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, from an extremely conservative district in southern California. He has said in recent months that
an earlier period of global warming may have been caused by “dinosaur flatulence.” Last year, after coming under fire for seeming to suggest that if global warming is real it could be addressed by cutting down trees (when in fact forests reduce global warming by absorbing atmospheric carbon), he issued a statement saying, “I do not believe that CO2 is a cause of global warming.”
These statements of scientific illiteracy and science denialism are appalling enough by themselves, but even scarier is the thought that they come from the members of the House Science and Technology Committee! Lamar Smith (another climate change denier) is the Chair, Rohrabacher is the Vice-Chair, and Hall, Sensenbrenner, Broun, and Brooks are all prominent members. Previous members included the infamous Missouri Republican Todd Akin, a creationist with rather peculiar views on human reproduction. How is it that the House Committee with the greatest influence over science funding and policy in this country is dominated by people with demonstrably false views about science? How is is that the clowns are being allowed to take over the circus?
[It's no surprise that most of these guys are climate deniers. In addition to climate denial being a party platform of the GOP, most of them received a major share of their campaign funds from the oil and gas industry. Lamar Smith received over $83,000 in 2012 alone from the oil industry, and over $342,000 from all energy industries since 1999. Ralph Hall's largest contributor by far was oil and gas, with $59,000 in the last year alone. Broun received $10,000 from oil and gas, even though he represents a district in Georgia with no oil resources. You can go to the website www.opensecrets.org to find a rundown on how many of the climate deniers in Congress are heavily subsidized by the energy industry.]
This is not the first time we’ve heard politicians making appallingly ignorant statements about the value of science. Last year, Sarah Palin made a fool of herself attacking fruit fly research that was actually essential to prevention of an infestation of important crops in the U.S. Or take the recent attacks on a project doing research on snails, which sounded trivial at first until the important benefits were explained. Nearly every time politicians target one specific proposal (usually amounting only a trivial cost), they are quickly schooled on the fundamentals of the science, and why the project was deemed worthy of support by people who actually know science (as opposed to the science deniers and science illiterates on the House Science Committee).
Perversely using the Orwellian name “High-Quality Science Act,” Smith and the other members of that committee are now proposing new criteria for decisions about funding NSF grants, specifically that they “advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science.” However, we already spend a huge part of our federal budget on national defense, and health is funded by the NIH, so there’s no need for the NSF (which funds pure, non-defense related, non-health related, non-commercial science) to do the same. Besides, NSF grants already have that criterion built into them. When I wrote my last few grant proposals, “intellectual merit” was no longer sole criterion for funding, but we also had to discuss the “broader impacts” to the scientific community and society in our grants. When I served on NSF panels that looked at all the reviews and made the recommendations for funding, those “broader impacts” on society made a lot of difference on what grants actually get funded. That’s not a trivial task, since most branches of the NSF fund at most 20% to 30% of the proposals they receive, and lots of excellent, world-famous scientists get turned down routinely.
But this raises a larger question: how are we to know which research will advance society? As I pointed out in a previous post, “pure” science which follows curiosity and doesn’t need to justify its benefit to society is where nearly all the great breakthroughs in science occur. Many of the greatest discoveries are made by accident, by serendipity, and cannot be predicted or anticipated by the researcher trying to justify their work in a grant proposal. When we fund pure research, we make unanticipated discoveries that have been shown to pay off at least 20 times as much as they cost. If we clamp down on pure research and only fund projects which have obvious practical societal benefits, we will choke all the creativity and sense of exploration from science, and guarantee that we will no longer be the ones who make the next great, unanticipated discovery or breakthrough. Members of the scientific community who do the grant review process know this—but its clear from their track record that politicians don’t.
In a Slate blog, “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait put it clearly:
This is not a joke. Smith wants politics to trump science at the National Science Foundation. This prompted a brilliantly indignant letter from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), who calls this idea “destructive” to science. She’s right. What Smith is doing strongly reminds me of Lysenkoism, when the Soviet government suppressed science on genetics and evolution that didn’t toe the party line. In these attacks on the NSF, a few lines of research have been highlighted that sound silly out of context. We’ve seen this before from those on the far right who attack science, from Sarah Palin to the Wall Street Journal. But when you look more deeply into the research you usually find it’s actually quite important, leading to new insights in biology, medicine, and more. While government funds science and should have oversight to make sure that funding is fairly granted, the best people to make the decisions about what constitutes good science are the scientists themselves, not agenda- and ideologically-driven politicians. And there’s a bigger picture here as well. The entire endeavor of science must be allowed the freedom to pursue ideas wherever they lead, and must have the flexibility to pursue ideas that may not pan out. From a financial view, the ones that work invariably subsidize the ones that don’t. We can’t know in advance what lines of research will yield results, but the ones that do succeed benefit us, increasing our knowledge vastly and leading to a better understanding of the world. That’s a critical human endeavor, even ignoring the vast, overwhelming material benefit we get from scientific advances. And the huge return on investment we get as well. What Smith is advocating is incredibly dangerous. When a society’s government starts dictating what can and cannot be investigated, scientific and creative progress stalls. Lysenko’s work, advocated by Stalin, led to the USSR falling almost irretrievably behind other, more progressive countries; ones like the United States. That was a hard-won lesson in history for the Soviets, but apparently lost on many current American politicians.