THE BLOG
03/22/2013 09:44 am ET | Updated May 22, 2013

Scientists Outraged That Elected Reps Control Their Handouts

Concerned scientists on the dole reacted with fury when an amendment to the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013, offered by spending scold Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla), passed the Senate. It will limit the National Science Foundation's ability to award political science grants to only those projects directly related to national security or the economic interests of the United States. "The amendment makes all scientific research vulnerable to the whims of political pressure," shrieked the American Political Science Association in a press release.

The horror! Imagine what would happen if entrenched technocrats and the tenured professors they support were actually held accountable by the elected representatives of the taxpayers who pay their bills? Where would the money come from to build RoboSquirrels to entertain rattlesnakes? Or investigate why lesbians are fat and drink too much? Or study whether playing Farmville helps people make friends? And, no, there is no need to revisit the shrimp on the treadmill brouhaha. (NPR has already rushed to the defense of that scientist, who claims his research benefits the seafood industry. If it's such a boon, let fishermen pay for it.)

Senator Coburn, a former physician and one of the few members of Congress who was not a lawyer before he joined the non-productive class, has made a career out of attacking government waste, fraud, duplication, and questionable spending. His 2011 report "The NSF Under The Microscope" offered a rare glimpse into this motherhood-and-apple-pie agency that politicians question at their peril. Not many are brave enough to do so. After all, anyone who comes out against science funding risks being dragged through the mud as a climate denying creationist Neanderthal.

All I can say to those who take the ad hominem path is, do your worst. I was trained as a scientist. My whole career has been built around the fruits of scientific inquiry. I invest in scientists working to create products and services that improve our lives. Some of my best friends are scientists, including my son. It is entirely possible to be pro-science yet oppose wasteful spending, duplication, misplaced priorities, and the lack of accountability among those who consume taxpayer money. In fact, it is the duty of our elected representatives to do exactly that.

If you believe in democracy, then spending priorities must be set by the people. Removing entire fields of endeavor from accountability by placing them in the hands of unelected bureaucrats makes a mockery of democratic principles. Which makes sense if you prefer to be ruled by a benevolent dictator and his appointed minions. But at least be honest about it.

The real tragedy, aside from watching our federal government careen toward bankruptcy, is that big science has become a threat to innovative science. Thanks to munificent government support provided by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, a self-perpetuating guild of tenured Principal Investigators (PIs) has gained control of the educational, grant making, and publishing establishments that defines the shape and direction of most scientific research. These PIs approve each other's grants, review each other's papers, and dispense the credentials necessary to join their exalted ranks. Bucking the system is an invitation to ostracism.

Once you're a member of the guild, you've got a pretty good life. Competition among universities looking to rake off the sizeable overhead payments built in to government grants has led to the salaries of science professors converging with, and even surpassing, salaries in the private sector. But unlike a private sector job, you can't be fired. And thanks to the Bayh-Dole Act you can even get rich using intellectual property developed at taxpayer expense by licensing it to private companies.

Most breakthrough science does not come from comfy, middle-aged, risk-averse members of overstuffed consortia running large sweatshops of post docs and graduate students desperate to curry favor so they can become members of the guild. Most of the irreproducible research polluting the scientific literature comes from these mills. Real progress comes from young renegades thinking outside the box willing to take risks to challenge the status quo. It is this kind of science that gets lost in the shuffle every time the giant pork machine dispenses its largesse to the usual suspects. The best thing that could happen to scientific progress in the U.S. is to inject more scarcity, more open competition, and less business-as-usual support for projects that can't even pass the laugh test.