Cantor’s YouCut program invites public to judge merit of NSF programs

Mad Scientist
Science looks so much easier on TV (Photo by Stephen Edmonds on Flickr)

House Majority Leader-Elect Eric Cantor wants you to know he’s serious about cutting the deficit.  That’s why he’s initiated the YouCut website where ordinary folks can make recommendations for cutting wasteful government spending.

The principle is simple.  Each week a different target will be put up on the website and informed citizens can submit their opinions on government largess.  After all, “The American People” clearly know best how to spend every dime.

This week’s target is the National Science Foundation (NSF).  In a video at the top of the site, Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb) admits that NSF funds some good stuff, and that 150 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to people who have received NSF grants since 1950.  But he contends there’s lots of silly stuff there as well.  One of the examples he cites is a grant to study on-field contributions of soccer players, which arguably sounds funny when explained in those terms.

The actual study is a wee bit more complex than that.  It does involve a study of how soccer players are ranked in effectiveness in contributing to the team goal, but this is primarily a study within a field called complex systems.  The goal of this field of study is to be able to model systems where lots of independent contributors have both individual motivations and team goals.  Being able to model relatively simple systems like a soccer game might one day lead to the ability to model and predict military tactics, stock markets, or ecosystems.  Does it still seem so trivial and irrelevant?

The problem is, the vast majority of visitors to Cantor’s site haven’t the slightest clue about any of this.  Most of the grant proposals listed on the referenced site have names like “Integrated investigation of inertial particle pair dynamics in turbulence”, and “Shear thickening and defect formation in chemical mechanical polishing slurries”. This is even abstruse stuff to scientists not working in those fields. This is why the NSF has a vigorous review process where proposals are evaluated by experts in the domain of the proposal and are judged not only on their intellectual merits, but on the broader impact such research might have in the specific field.

It passes from arrogance to sheer folly to think that the average, or even above average, voter or Congressman is in a position to make an informed choice here. It would be like disassembling your car on the front lawn and then asking your neighbors to identify the non-essential bits. The government still controls the NSF funding and the process by which programs get approved. But once set up, this is a case where the execution of the process is beyond most citizens.  You wouldn’t hold direct votes on military tactics or monetary policy.  NSF funding isn’t different.  There are just some decisions that require specific expertise.

It’s important to put this in context.  The proposed NSF funding for 2011 is $7.424B.  This money is allocated to over 10,000 programs amounting to an average of just over a half-million dollars each.  The total is less than half of 1% of the projected $1.3T deficit, so even eliminating the entire NSF (which no one is proposing) doesn’t put a dent in the debt.  Eliminating a few million dollars of programs is simply noise, and is wasting time relative to the structural debt problem the USA faces. Cantor voted just this past week for adding an additional $858B to the deficit with the tax cut bill.  So his credibility for being a deficit hawk is already badly tarnished. Him taking a few whacks at the lab coat clad is nothing more that posturing.

New technologies breed new products, new cures, and new markets.  That’s new jobs and new hope for America as a 21st Century economic power.  But none of that happens without fundamental science research.  On TV, science is often the product of a lone genius on a intellectual weekend bender.  Real science is tedious, collaborative, and just damn hard.  And without public funding, much of that research will not occur.  Granted, not all paths yield results.  That’s the nature of the game.  Do NSF projects get funded that turn out to be dead-ends or silly endeavors?  Sure.  But those are the exceptions and not the rules.  No process prevents everything from falling through the cracks.  But there’s no evidence to suggest the NSF process is broken.

In the meantime, unless you feel qualified to weigh the merits of “Shear Transformational Zones in Amorphous Granular Packings” against the need for “Engineering magnetorheological fluids by controlling nonmagnetic particle interactions”, maybe we should just let the experts do their jobs and focus on the real problems Congress might actually solve.