Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right

Both the left and the right are infused with hypocrisy when it comes to accepting science and evidence-based evaluations.  The source and cause of the antagonism should be obvious.  A scientific worldview requires a commitment to changing positions if and when new evidence develops, models are refined, and theory deepens.  A political (or a religious) worldview places core commitments above empirical data, as was so clearly revealed in the case of The Vatican v. Galileo Galilei.  The left wants scientists to practice science for the redistribution of wealth.  The right wants scientists to practice science for the Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

The latest assault on science comes from the right, and has the name “The High Quality Research Act” (HQRA).  The text of the bill provides:

SEC. 2. HIGH QUALITY RESEARCH.

(a) CERTIFICATION

Prior to making an award of any contract or grant funding for a scientific research project, the Director of the National Science Foundation shall publish a statement on the public website of the Foundation that certifies that the research project—

(1) is in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

(2) is the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

(3) is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.

(b) TRANSFER OF FUNDS

Any unobligated funds for projects not meeting the requirements of subsection (a) may be awarded to other scientific research projects that do meet such requirements.

(c) INITIAL IMPLEMENTATION REPORT .

Not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Director shall report to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives on how the requirements set forth in subsection (a) are being implemented.

(d) NATIONAL SCIENCE BOARD IMPLEMENTATION REPORT

Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the National Science Board shall report to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives its findings and recommendations on how the requirements of subsection (a) are being implemented.

(e) IMPLEMENTATION BY OTHER AGENCIES

Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in collaboration with the National Science and Technology Council, shall report to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives on how the requirements of sub-section (a) may be implemented in other Federal science agencies.

Although the Bill applies by its terms to the National Science Foundation, the Congressional mandate envisions implementation by other Federal science agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.  The heart of the Bill is the required certification from the Director of the NSF under Section (2)(a)(1), (2), and (3), above.

The proposed statutory criteria for the Director’s certification virtually ensure that no research will be funded; indeed, the criteria are inimical to the very idea of research.

The first criterion, the general welfare and defense of the country, is an utterly vacuous standard.  The Director could certify any research under this criterion.

The second criterion, which I call the criterion of hyperbolic research can virtually never be met.  Funded research must now not only be of good or excellent quality, it must be of “the finest quality.”  The research must be “ground breaking.”  Of course, no honest researcher knows in advance that the research will be ground breaking.  There are no guarantees of success in research.  If there were, then the research would be unnecessary because the grant proposal would suffice.  I suspect that every researcher believes his or her research will “answer questions or solve problems that are of the utmost importance to society at large,” but the bill is written to suggest that the Director must certify success in advance, as justification for the funding.  Of course, the NSF Director, if honest, will never be able to satisfy this criterion for most research even when the research is relatively successful in advancing scientific understanding of some phenomenon.  If this is the standard, nothing would or should be funded. Why not just say government should not be a funding resource because political processes can never ensure the highest quality research.

The third criterion for certification by the Director, which requires that the funded research not be duplicative of other federally funded research projects, is the hardest to understand.  A crucial part of the scientific process is replication and demonstration of consistency.  Furthermore, non-duplication is a vague and contested criterion at best.  If a previous cross-sectional study suggested an association between an environmental exposure and a particular disease, would NSF funding of a case-control study be duplicative because it would looking at a possible association between the same exposure and outcome as studied in the previous study?  I would think not, but the language of the bill invites an attack on the Director for certifying the case-control study.

I would be the first to agree that there is some poor science conducted at the public’s expense (and some very good science too), but the certification is poorly designed to advance the quality of federally funded scientific research.  No doubt, the sponsors of the bill see the certification requirement as an opportunity to haul the Director of the NSF (and ultimately of the Director of the National Institutes) into Congressional committee meetings to be publicly dressed down for research that the committee members disapprove of.

Dylan Walsh of the New Yorker has reported about the introduction of the HQRA bill by Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Dylan Walsh, “Not Safe for Funding: The N.S.F. and the Economics of Science,” The New Yorker (May 9, 2013).

Among the distinguished members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is scientist Congressman Paul Broun.  Back in September 2012, at a church-sponsored event in Georgia, Dr. Broun declared that “all that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang theory” are “lies straight from the pit of hell.” These lies, according to Broun, are no casual deviation from the truth; they are part of a conspiracy to “to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”

This is the same Representative Broun who declared:

“You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.”

The proposed HQRA is all about turning control of science funding to politicians, people like Representative Broun, and his colleagues.

There is an interesting discussion of the HQRA at Professor Deborah Mayo’s blog, “If it’s called the ‘The High Quality Research Act’, then ….” (May 9, 2013).

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