Transformative Science

May 27 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Senator Coburn from Oklahoma is now leading the latest Republican charge against science. In a recently released so-called exposé of wasteful spending at the NSF he shows his deep seated ignorance of how science is conducted and what its significance is. While several bloggers have already eloquently written about his report's misrepresentations and distortions of what he calls frivolous science (here, here and here), one thing that struck me is his view of what "transformative" science really entails. A few years back the NSF amended its grant review criteria to consider whether the proposal under consideration explored "potentially transformative concepts". Sen Coburn spends about 25 pages outlining projects that in his expert scientific opinion are not only not transformative, but also frivolous and wasteful. However if you read closely the descriptions of such projects many of the distortions become evident. He particularly picks on studies in the social sciences, as if studying the nature of race relations in America, or the best methods to disseminate science to kids, or the growing effect of social networks on the structure of society, or studying the democratic process, or the best way to involve the community in scientific discovery thus increasing science literacy, are not important issues that affect us all. Even studies which the potential implications for improved technology are evident such as teaching robots incredibly complex tasks such as riding a bike or folding laundry are ridiculed. Does Coburn really thing that scientists are designing a laundry-folding robot to help out with their housework? Is he THAT narrow-minded?

Furthermore Coburn's report shows an utter lack of understanding of the scientific process. It is very rare that a single study will be transformative on its own. Rather most projects work to solve little bits of the puzzle at a time, creating useful basic information which gradually becomes incorporated into the body of knowledge and ultimately leading to a transformative concept. One has to look at the entire portfolio of a funding agency or directorate within the agency to grasp the overall scope of the research, which when all put together it becomes transformative. Science funding agencies only fund a tiny percentage of proposals submitted to them, and these are reviewed by panels of experts and managed by scientific officers who keep an eye on the big picture. How does the senator claim to be more of an expert than the hundreds of scientists reviewing these proposals.

Finally, what most pissed me off is his call to eliminate (or consolidate) most of the education programs run by the NSF. The senator claims that there is too much overlap with other STEM programs run by other federal agencies. But the NSF has a long history of supporting STEM education, increasing scientific literacy, reducing achievement disparities in underrepresented groups and notably in integrating research and education. Unlike other federal funding agencies the NSF requires that proposals have a plan to disseminate their science as part of their broader impacts. Many of these educational activities serve as an important means by which scientists can communicate their science with the public and train the next generation of sciences.

I urge you to call your representatives in congress and ask them to support basic science and science education.

 

28 responses so far

  • Dr. O says:

    Furthermore Coburn's report shows an utter lack of understanding of the scientific process. It is very rare that a single study will be transformative on its own. Rather most projects work to solve little bits of the puzzle at a time, creating useful basic information which gradually becomes incorporated into the body of knowledge and ultimately leading to a transformative concept.

    Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! Forgot to mention this one myself...and great points on the educational outreach performed by NSF.

  • Heather says:

    It's all very well for us scientists to wring our hands in front of one another. I did it back in February. PZ did it a couple of months earlier.

    I'm not in the United States, but the only way to fight obscurantism is to engage. I do that by making sure that I have established credibility among the many right-wing members of the patient associations I work with, and then I state my views gently but firmly. I hope that one or two have come away from such conversations not only thinking that they don't want to talk about political issues with me anymore, but that if *I* think that frivolous-sounding research is worthwhile, perhaps there is something in it after all.

    I bet there is more to be done on site.

    • Zen Faulkes says:

      I'm all for engagement (it's why I blog) but the opportunities to do so are not always easy to find. (I was pleased to see someone taking the opposite site commenting on my shrimp on a treadmill post - don't know if he'll come back to read my reply.)

      But when faced with this constant stream of (almost always Republican) politicians second-guessing peer review, singling out projects to laugh at, and attacking all professions and expertise, you have to wonder if there is anything that is going to change anyone's mind.

  • WhizBANG! says:

    I'm moving to Oklahoma. Adding two more liberal democrats to the state may not tip the political balance, but I will do what I can. For Science!

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Strictly as a practical matter, don't you think it might be more politically effective to say, in effect:

    Senator, you have a point. Some of these grants seem frivolous, and certainly we can all agree that abuse of travel funds and the like is wrong. These are not reflective of the values and standards of the scientific community. We welcome additional oversight in these areas.

    At the same time, we can all agree that additional money is needed for pressing issues in the biomedical and physical sciences. How about we exchange the dancing shrimp for an R01 in cancer therapeutics for this promising young investigator who just missed the payline despite scoring in the top 10% of all grants submitted...

    • namnezia says:

      Based on the misrepresentations that I know he is making, it is hard for me to take much in that report at face value. But if you feel your approach is more politically effective by all means, please send him and your representative a letter.

    • So you're saying that the effects on crustaceans' metabolism of sub-lethal levels of infectious pathogens, such as that due to human contamination of waterways, and which may affect populations' ability to withstand changes due to habitat loss, pollution and increased temperatures, is not worthy of investigation? Not even in the Gulf of Mexico?

    • Zen Faulkes says:

      "How about we exchange the dancing shrimp for an R01 in cancer therapeutics for this promising young investigator who just missed the payline despite scoring in the top 10% of all grants submitted."

      I really, really, REALLY don't want to pit different research fields against each other.

      Because lines that that are exactly the same thing Senator Coburn is doing: Second guessing peer review, singling out specific projects, and saying, "Well, *I* think THIS is more important than THAT."

      Biomedical research already has a much bigger slice of the pie than basic stuff like crustacean research. Do you really begrudge us our crumbs?

      • Neuro-conservative says:

        It's not about pitting different research fields against each other, like some kind of dogfight. It's about setting national priorities in an era of extreme budget deficits.

        Taxpayers, through their elected representatives, are entitled to play a role in that conversation. Indeed, it could be argued that taxpayers are the only ones who can make these decisions. Peer review is not designed to determine whether crustacean research is more important than cancer research -- it only evaluates quality of science within a given domain.

        • Zen Faulkes says:

          Thanks for elaborating; much fairer and more principled.

        • gerty-z says:

          I don't do this level of basic research, and am more in the realm of biomedical science. Nevertheless, though it may sound reasonable to "set national priorities", I think the focus on biomedical research (at the expense of basic research) is short-sighted and suggests a lack of understanding where real innovation in understanding biology derives. I think that Liz Blackburn made the point well in her Nobel speech (http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2009/blackburn-lecture.html). Without these sorts of fundamental insights into biology, there IS no new "bio"medicine. The beauty of basic research is that you don't know where it will lead you. But without these explorations, the more applied biomedical research would quickly become stagnant.

        • proflikesubstance says:

          It's about setting national priorities in an era of extreme budget deficits.

          Totally, we should focus all of our efforts on curing cancer. There's no point in funding basic research because all it does is let us figure out about stupid shit that no one cares about, like dumbass fruit flies and ciliates that never led to anything useful.

          oh, wait...

          http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2009/press.html

          http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1995/illpres/index.html

          Cause I'm sure there was no basic research that led to these discoveries. None at all. But hey, short-term goals be they research or social policy, are always in the best interest of the country, right, N-c. Always.

          • Neuro-conservative says:

            Now, now, take a deep breath, PLS. Stop fighting with the imaginary teabag monster in your head and go back and read my comment. I did not say, and do not believe, anything remotely like what you implied. Nor does Senator Coburn, who spends the first several pages of his report lauding many of the basic research efforts supported by the NSF.

            As someone once said, "This has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with a mindset that is so hard wired into seeing stark divisions and right vs. wrong, that it makes it impossible to see reality."

    • becca says:

      Your suggested approach would most likely be a way of getting more rapid consensus on funding pressing issues in biomedical and physical sciences, yes (assuming there is a consensus to be had there, which is probable but not a given). One type of effect.

      At the same time, in an era of deficit panic and unpopular war, there are MANY important conversations we need to have about budgets. Cutting NSF's isn't one I see as important. Frankly, we need to "raise" taxes (and by raising, I mean eliminating recent tax cuts), and cut spending. I do not wish to engage in conversations with anyone who doesn't respect that principle.
      This is why I am not a career politician and why my first priority is not engaging for maximal shorterm productivity on limited issues with the likes of Coburn.

      No amount of quibbling over specific grants in the NSF budget- the entire total of which accounts for less than 0.3% of the US federal budget- is going to solve this problem.
      There are thus three possible reasons why this is coming up:
      1) Coburn can't do math and doesn't realize the NSF thing is trivial in the grand scheme of things
      2) Coburn knows it's trivial, and brings it up anyway, to score political points
      2A) he is trying to score the easy political points based on emotional notion that 'the government is wasteful'- see ridiculously inflated toilet seat price example from past eras. This trick is used on both sides of the aisle.
      2B) he is trying to score political points with people who hate science, shrimp, and/or treadmills. Even if Coburn can do math, that doesn't mean everyone can. There are might be people out there dumb enough to think that shimps on treadmills are why their taxes are so high. These people are looking for a scapegoat, and Coburn is giving it to them. The fact that the scapegoat is pointyheaded scientists is not coincidental.

  • Dr. O says:

    The biggest issue, IMO, is when individuals in Congress, who don't have any understanding of the scientific process, start deciding what research should be done. Coburn doesn't have the scientific *authority* to make these calls, and he's not willing to engage with those that do. Instead, he's poking fun at valuable research to score political points. His motivations are skewed, and, as scientists, Namnezia, NeuroDojo, I (and several others I'm sure) are trying to make that clear to anyone who will listen.

    • Neuro-conservative says:

      No amount of scientific authority can determine whether the next marginal dollar of crustacean research or cancer research is more important -- that is a value judgment.

      And when it comes to value judgments affecting public policy, I prefer a democratic approach to an authoritarian one.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    The Los Angeles Times has an excellent article about why scientists often have to prove the obvious. It arises into some of the points and criticisms in Coburn's report:

    http://www.latimes.com/health/la-sci-duh-20110529,0,3219165,full.story

    • Neuro-conservative says:

      Thanks for the link, Zen. An unusually well-balanced article for the MSM. My favorite point was this one:

      Ellis said that funding basic research remains a crucial area for the government. "But not every study is equally worthwhile," he said. "If the public sees things that appear to be ridiculous, it's going to be harder and harder to get dollars for critical research."

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Now, now, take a deep breath, PLS. Stop fighting with the imaginary teabag monster in your head and go back and read my comment. I did not say, and do not believe, anything remotely like what you implied. Nor does Senator Coburn, who spends the first several pages of his report lauding many of the basic research efforts supported by the NSF.

    As usual N-c, your myopia would be humorous if it wasn't the regurgitated talking points of the Heroes of the White Right. Like all of the douchebags trying to sell this latest batch of manure, you're completely ignoring that fact that we already have made our priorities. Why do you think the budget for NSF is so much smaller than that of NIH? Coincidence?

    And which research is worthwhile? If we knew which things were going to lead to significant advances in science (and even biomedical science), then we could just fund those, right? It's so easy, why didn't we just think of that sooner!?! Man, you could have saved us soooo much money already if we just listed to you.

    I think Becca summed it up nicely:
    Even if Coburn can do math, that doesn't mean everyone can. There are might be people out there dumb enough to think that shimps on treadmills are why their taxes are so high. These people are looking for a scapegoat, and Coburn is giving it to them. The fact that the scapegoat is pointyheaded scientists is not coincidental.

    Either you're dumb enough to think that "superfluous"* research is why your taxes are high, or you're hoping to sell it to those who are to advance your own twisted agenda.

    *As defined by a bunch doods who were History and English majors in college.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Oh, N-c. You're such a tragic figure! How do you do it? A martyr to the good people of the Right, like a beacon of bright white light.

  • Namnezia says:

    N-c says:

    Nor does Senator Coburn, who spends the first several pages of his report lauding many of the basic research efforts supported by the NSF.

    Seriously?! C'mon N-c, even you wouldn't believe that Coburn's report is there to "educate the public" and aid in the democratic process by helping the public set national scientific priorities.

    Sure, Coburn lauds some basic research efforts, but then totally undermines this by ridiculing projects he seems to find frivolous. I'm sure if you took these groundbreaking studies that he lauds and look at their original proposals, you could easily take these out of context and make them sound ludicrous too.

    There is so much right-wing spin in this report that it makes me dizzy.

  • [...] and fraud by the National Science Foundation (NSF), including posts by Dr. O, Steve Silberman, Namnezia, NeuroDojo, The Prodigal Academic, and Stephanie Pappas. The first thing to realize about Tom [...]

Leave a Reply


− 6 = two