Friday, May 17, 2013

Accountability and the National Science Foundation

Some of the research the National Science Foundation performs is suspected by some people as being a waste of taxpayer's money.  So, regularly there are initiatives in congress trying to improve the accountability of the NSF.   The latest suggests adding a fresh layer of bureaucracy after the peer review process to "solve the problem of so many questionable grants being awarded".  The proposal is to not fund  any research unless Congress certifies after the initial peer review that it addresses questions of economic development or national security. Well, the problem with that is that all NSF grants DO address questions of economic development or national security. 

The new initiative selected as examples five grants (out of about 10,000 awarded) suspected as being dubious. I quickly looked up two random abstracts of the five projects under question. It's clear to me that, if they are what they claim (and peer review is to make sure of this), these projects are of clear potential economic benefit.

One of them is a comparative network analysis of global social interactions. This has implications  for the spread of pathogens and public health countermeasures, for market research on the diffusion of innovations,  for social movement research on "domino effects" like those observed in the cascading collapse of the former Soviet Union and more recently in the Arab Spring (there's a national security interest), and  comparative studies of social capital and economic development. Computer scientists will benefit from comparative data that may be helpful for tailoring the design of online social network sites. 

The other is a study of a food safety scandal in China. Food safety scandals raise questions about complex and globalized food production and distribution systems, the impact on consumer health and well-being, and the global governance of food and health risks. Results of the project will increase knowledge of the transmission of food safety standards and contribute to public discussions about food safety and security in the U.S. and China, resulting in greater opportunities for improved food safety. 

These two would clearly appear to meet the criterion. My guess is the others are similarly useful. 

So where's the problem?  Is it that the Congressional office concerned simply didn't read the abstracts? Or that they can't see that, say, market research on the diffusion of innovations is of economic importance? If it's the former then they simply need to make the effort to read the abstracts - that's not NSF's fault. If the latter, then clearly some lawmakers need  a simple education on what drives long-term prosperity and security in a country - let's call it "Economic Development and National Security, 101".

Congress obviously should perform important work in deciding relative public priorities (e.g. cancer  versus energy research). However,  NSF, with its miserly funding level of $7bn, is a major driver of the US economy, both via direct research innovation and  in training the STEM researchers of the future. Putting politicians  on the review boards of individual NSF proposals would quickly put the brakes on that. 

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