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June 15, 2012 (Vol. 32, No. 12)

Waste and Abuse in Federal Research Funding

Government Agencies Cry Poor While Squandering Resources

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    Henry I. Miller, M.D.

    From 1975 to 1987 Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) presented monthly “Golden Fleece Awards” to identify what he viewed as wasteful government spending. The announcements were widely covered by the media at the time.

    The first two awards went to the National Science Foundation, which Sen. Proxmire believed had a peculiar idea of what was worthy of taxpayer dollars. The first NSF grant, for $84,000, was intended to discover why people fall in love. The second, for $500,000 (part of which was from two other federal agencies), was to determine which stimuli cause rats, monkeys, and humans to bite and to clench their jaws.

    NSF continues to fleece American taxpayers. In April last year Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a physician, released a report, “NSF Under the Microscope,” that provides a useful analysis of the agency’s funding. The news is mixed. On the one hand, Coburn found that “there is no question NSF has contributed significantly to scientific discovery.” On the other, “a significant percentage of your money is going to what most Americans will consider fraud, waste and abuse, and there are many areas where NSF could contribute far more with better management and smarter targeting of resources.”

    Coburn’s report identified a number of projects that will make most Americans—scientists and nonscientists alike—shake their heads. They include studies of: how to ride a bike; when dogs became man’s best friend; whether political views are genetically predetermined; whether parents choose trendy baby names; and when the best time is to buy a ticket to a sold-out sporting event. And it noted that “only politicians appear to benefit from other NSF studies, such as research on what motivates individuals to make political donations, how politicians can benefit from Internet town halls...and how politicians use the Internet.”

    My own experience confirms the thrust of Coburn’s report. Some of the projects I’ve encountered are of the overtly ridiculous variety. I recall suffering through a presentation about an NSF-funded study of the ethics of nanotechnology research. The investigator interviewed nanotechnology researchers in their offices, and part of her “research methodology” involved recording what kind of screen savers were on their computers.

    The study concluded: “Narrative is an indispensable device for formulation of theory about scientists [sic] perspectives regarding the moral and social implications of nanotechnology,” and “alternative pedagogies are necessary to fully explore and develop a working ethical framework for analysis of nanotechnology.” Sounds as though it’s of nano-value to society.

  • Citizen Technology Forums

    Some of the projects funded by NSF are less flagrant but real examples of waste, fraud, or abuse. For example, the agency has funded a series of “citizens technology forums,” at which previously uninformed, ordinary Americans were brought together to solve a thorny question of technology policy.

    According to the NSF’s abstract of the project, carried out by researchers at North Carolina State University under a grant, participants were to “receive information about that issue from a range of content-area experts, experts on social implications of science and technology, and representatives of special interest groups”; this was supposed to enable them to reach consensus “and ultimately generate recommendations.”

    The project, first funded in 2002 to support two panels, and expanded thereafter, called for eight more panels (comprised of people “representative of the local population”). Their deliberations were to be overseen by a research team “composed of faculty in rhetoric of science, group decision-making, and political science,” who were charged to test both “an innovative measure of democratic deliberation” and “also political science theory, by investigating relationships between gender, ethnicity, lower socioeconomic status and increases in efficacy and trust in regulators.”

    The first of these NSF-funded citizens groups tackled regulatory policy toward agricultural biotechnology and recommended that the government tighten regulations for cultivating genetically engineered crops, including a new requirement that the foods from these crops be labeled to identify them for consumers.

    Both of these proposals are unwarranted, inappropriate, and contrary to the recommendations of experts—including those within and outside the government. (The labeling recommendation would also run afoul of the constitutional guarantees of commercial free speech, which the citizens failed to realize.)

    In 2008, the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University and its collaborators at North Carolina State University held an NSF-funded citizens technology forum on the topic of nanotechnology and human enhancement. It followed the pattern of the one on biotechnology, with the organizers selecting “from a broad pool of applicants a diverse and roughly representative group of seventy-four citizens to participate at six geographically distinct sites across the country.”

    Participants were informed by “a sixty-one page background document—vetted by experts—to read prior to deliberating.” (The experts once again reflected the viewpoints of the organizers, no doubt.) They produced a hodgepodge of conclusions and recommendations, including “concern over the effectiveness of regulations” and “reduced certainty about the benefits of human enhancement technologies” but wanted “the government to guarantee access to them if they prove too expensive for the average American.” (Surprise: The participants didn’t understand the risks and benefits of the new technology but wanted the government to provide them with entitlements so they could avail themselves of it!)

    The output of the citizens technology forums illustrates that such undertakings have limitations in both theory and practice; nonexperts are too often subject to their own prejudices and to the specific choice of background materials and the advocates to whom they are exposed. Both of these groups yielded just what one would expect: opinions that were based on a slanted and incomplete understanding of the subject.

    Getting policy recommendations on obscure and complex technical questions from groups of citizen nonexperts is like going from your cardiologist’s office to a café, explaining to the waitress the therapeutic options for your chest pain, and asking her whether you should have the angioplasty or just take medication.

    This project is ill-conceived on its face. Moreover, the NSF’s left hand seems not to know what the right hand is doing. A study of public comprehension of science by the foundation several years ago found that fewer than one in four people know what a molecule is, and only about half understand that the earth circles the sun once a year. There’s a good reason that people generally are not science and technology savvy—a phenomenon that has been dubbed “rational ignorance,” which comes into play when the cost of sufficiently informing oneself about an issue to make an informed decision on it outweighs any potential benefit one could reasonably expect from that decision.

    Citizens occupied with the concerns of daily living—families, jobs, health—may not consider it to be cost-effective to study the potential risks and benefits of genetic engineering or nanotechnology.

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