D.C. Event Helps Policymakers See Past the Abstract

binoculars see past abstractIt was a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014, although realistically it could have been almost any year in the last five or six. Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman from Arizona, was railing against federally funded scientific research by insinuating that some of it failed to be “constitutional, appropriate, and sane.” He approvingly cited a report from Tom Coburn, then a Republican senator from Oklahoma; the report was titled The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope.

Under the Microscope coverGosar started to recite some of the familiar anecdotes that, in his mind, suggested frivolous spending on silly science. Well into his litany he noted that “since 2000, grants provided by the National Science Foundation have been used to study crustaceans running on tiny treadmills after being exposed to different microbes.”

It was a familiar, if sad, refrain for many who support scientific research. (The research, by the way, looks at how pollution and climate change affect aquaculture.)

On April 13, the Coalition to Promote Research and the Coalition for National Science Funding, are co-sponsoring a reception and poster session for policymakers to provide a closer look at research grants that have been highlighted in a number of recent reports like Under the Microscope (e.g., Federal Fumbles: 100 Ways the Government Dropped the Ball or Wastebook: The Farce Awakens, both from last year.) The reception – “Wasteful Research? Looking Beyond the Abstract” – will host a number of scientists, including David “Mr. Treadmill” Scholnick — whose own work has been attacked in these various volumes. The event  is presented in concert with a collection of contributors, including SAGE Publishing.

Other posters will explain how the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation choose which projects to fund, learn about the role of peer/merit review, and leave with a better appreciation for research that has beaten long odds to be funded by these competitive, world-class U.S. science agencies.

The exhibition and reception takes place from 5-7 p.m. on April 13 in the Kennedy Caucus Room (room 325) of the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Although there is no cost to attend, RSVPs are requested and can be made HERE.

We asked two organizers of the event, Patricia Clem Kobor, senior science policy analyst for the American Psychological Association, and Angela Sharpe, deputy director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, about the legislative landscape that spawned this event (and other initiatives that defend good scholarship, such as the Golden Goose Awards) and the ways that good social and physical science research not only don’t squander money but enhance the return on the taxpayer’s investment.

Why do you have quotes on “wasteful”? Is it only social and behavioral research that gets that tag?

 The quotation marks mean “allegedly wasteful,” because the projects on exhibit have been tagged with that label in media stories or congressional “waste-book” reports. However, we believe this event will demonstrate the value of these projects, and the review and priority-setting processes under which they were funded.  Projects in many scientific disciplines have been labeled wasteful, not only behavioral and social science projects, and have later proven to be important, if not ground-breaking.

How will this event help reset that characterization? Ideally, what would you like to see follow?

 The investigators at the event can explain the story of their research better than anyone else – how the targeted project followed from earlier research, what sort of questions needed to be answered, how competitive the review was that led to the project’s funding.  A short news article may not convey that level of detail, and often the writers of the congressional waste-book reports (which can get picked up by the media) just got it wrong.

We believe it essential that researchers interact with their Washington representatives as constituents. Our goal is for congressional staff and members of Congress to develop confidence in the review and priority-setting processes that led to these projects, and to realize that the way the projects have been described is unfair or incomplete. This type of attack on research needs to stop.  It undermines the scientific enterprise and diminishes the agencies that fund the research.  We believe that the more information members and staff have about the scientific process, the less likely they will see this research as wasteful.

How did you choose the speakers?

We heard some of these scientists speak, like David Scholnick, who we think should be honored for his “shrimp on a treadmill” work instead of ridiculed.  We especially wanted non-human model work to be represented because such projects are frequently targeted, so we will exhibit projects using shrimp, marmosets and fruit flies. We also noticed that there has been increased targeting of research that uses text messaging and new media as tools, so we thought it important to feature investigators who could explain why those projects are needed. Concerns are sometimes raised about research conducted in or about foreign countries, so we will feature a project on the regulation of food systems in China.

This occurs on April 13, a few days before Tax Day. So what about the argument that we need to protect taxpayers?

Federal research is a great investment for taxpayers.  Scientific grants generate economic activity and jobs in every congressional district.  That is separate from the value we gain when, say, a scientist invents the internet, or nanotechnology, or a treatment for depression.  The trouble comes when policymakers demand a payoff for each and every grant. Every grant doesn’t pay for itself, but over time the system generates new knowledge that leads to new products and treatments.

William Proxmire
William Proxmire

It seems like legislators have been making fun of otherwise important research going back to the days of William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards. Could you sketch the history of these attacks? Have they changed over the years? Is today’s environment getting better or worse?

Senator Proxmire was skilled in generating media coverage for himself by ridiculing research that on its face sounded wasteful. Since then, we have both worked in Congress and understand that members of Congress want to ensure that federal funds are being spent wisely. But Senator Proxmire’s attacks and those of his imitators have done a great disservice to science by perpetuating false assumptions. Some of those false assumptions are evident in the subjects of work that is attacked (e.g., the idea that studies in a foreign country are not relevant to us in the U.S.). Others demonstrate a true misreading of the targeted projects – for example, the treadmill was a tool, not the point, of Dr. Scholnick’s research.

The biggest false assumption is that the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation are asleep at the switch and not ensuring that all their grants are high quality – whereas we who follow science policy closely know that those agencies have very rigorous peer review and priority-setting processes for funding the best science, which they constantly evaluate and work to enhance. Our funding agencies and their review processes are the envy of the world.

As to whether the environment is better or worse – the attacks right now aren’t coming in the form of amendments to defund specific research projects. So that’s positive— but that’s primarily because most of the appropriations bills, the traditional vehicle for those amendments, don’t reach the floor. That could change, although probably not this year. The House Science Committee frequently raises questions about specific NSF grants and looks for ways to direct funding to the research areas the committee members prefer.

What could I, or any individual, do to help support research going forward?

Recognize that these attacks ultimately harm science.  Don’t assume you are getting the whole story when you read an article that savages a research project.  Speak out when research is attacked, even if it isn’t your area of specialty. Let your elected representatives know you support scientific research and the merit/peer review process that assists in selecting the research that receives federal funding.

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Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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