Earmarks and the Ridicule of Science

There’s an interesting exchange over at the Reality-Based Community around the topic of “earmarks” for science, like the grizzly bear DNA study McCain keeps mocking. Michael O’Hare argues that science should not be funded by earmarks:

Almost any piece of scientific research, especially in biology, that isn’t called “Cure cancer!” is liable to the kind of ignorant ridicule lobbed at these. Sure, some research is deeply silly and some is not worth doing. But that non-specialists can make fun of something from its title means nothing, and these japes indicate only the smug ignorance of the speaker. There is a problem with these earmarks, and a real one, but it’s not that they are silly research, it’s that scientific research should be selected for funding by political judgments about large program areas and peer/expert selection of individual grants. The grounds for dissing these is that Congress is no good at allocating science money at the individual project level, and shouldn’t do so even if the projects in question are really stellar: if they are, they should make it through NSF review.

His co-blogger Mark Kleiman counters that earmarks can be good policy without being scientifically interesting:

For example, a study of the range of genetic variation in some species occupying some range might be of no scientific interest whatever, but be vital in deciding how much habitat protection that species needed to avoid extinction. The decision about which of those studies to undertake is properly economic and political, rather than purely scientific. I’m with Mike in thinking that bureaucrats rather than elected officials are usually the right decision-makers about such matters, but “Measure the DNA of these bears so we know whether we can safely log here” is just as reasonable a request for a Congressman to make as “Build levees to protect this town.”

Mark’s probably a bit off in his example, by virtue of not being a scientist, but his general point is correct. There’s a lot of work done by scientists that isn’t necessarily ground-breaking enough for NSF or NIH to be interested, but it is valuable enough to deserve funding.

Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of why science earmarks get singled out for ridicule by people like McCain and the infamous Senator Proxmire and others of their ilk. After all, the same arguments can be made about all sorts of “earmarks.” There are very few “earmarks” that can’t be made to sound silly, if you have a mind to, and at the same time, there are very few that are actually completely without merit.

Science gets singled out for the same reasons I discussed in my Science21 talk (video, microblogging, slides): politicians know they can safely mock science funding, because public understanding of science is terrible, and they know they’re unlikely to be called on it. Explaining why a study of bear DNA isn’t ridiculous takes long enough that the average uninformed voter will tune out long before the key point is reached.

The problem, as I said in the talk, is that there is no large, consistent, vocal constituency for science. As a result, politicians know that they’re not going to lose their seat by making fun of earmarks directed at scientific research. Even if it’s good, solid research (Kleiman cites Proxmire making fun of work that led to a Nobel Prize in Chemistry), people aren’t likely to understand the importance immediately, and they’re not likely to sit through the explanation.

The failure here is not due to policy wonks, it’s due to scientists. We have not done enough to instill an understanding and appreciation of science in the general public, and through that failure, we’ve made ourselves a target. Eliminating “earmarks” as a source of science funding is not a solution to the problem– moving everything under the auspices of NSF might make it harder to find specific projects to attack, but it will also shift the focus of the attacks to the NSF itself, and hurt all funding.

If you remember the culture wars of the late 80’s and early 90’s, a lot of fuss was kicked up about the funding of controversial art projects. Those weren’t funded by “earmarks,” they were funded through the National Endowment for the Arts. Culture-war zealots went through the list of projects funded by a granting agency, and pulled out the most lurid examples they could find in order to argue for eliminating the agency altogether.

Science in general is popular enough that it’s unlikely anyone will call for the elimination of the NSF, but if there were no science earmarks, you can bet that the latter-day Proxmires would be sifting through the NSF website looking for mockable project titles.

If we want to avoid seeing good science projects used as tools of political mockery, we need to work for a world in which there’s a political price to be paid for making fun of good research. Politicians don’t attack earmarks that pay for senior centers and child care projects, after all, because they know that doing so would be political suicide.

We’re not going to be able to make science as important to the average voter as keeping a roof over Grandma’s head, but we can hope to at least reach a point where people stop to ask “Is that really such a bad thing?” when somebody makes fun of research, and give them the tools they need to find out whether it’s a real boondoggle or just a victim of grandstanding. We need a greater commitment to bringing science to the broader public, not just from professional science communicators, but from scientists.

A hundred-odd years ago, science was something wealthy gentlemen could pursue in their ample spare time, but that’s not the world we live in now. Modern science is tremendously expensive, and dependent on public funds, which is to say, tax dollars from the general public. We need to come to terms with this fact, and make sure that the average taxpayer understands what they’re buying and why they’re buying it, or we’re going to be subject to stump-speech mockery forever.

6 thoughts on “Earmarks and the Ridicule of Science

  1. …if there were no science earmarks, you can bet that the latter-day Proxmires would be sifting through the NSF website looking for mockable project titles.

    They are doing that anyway. A few years back there was a kerfluffle over a half dozen or so peer-reviewed projects that some yahoo in Congress wanted to defund because the title and/or content offended his theocratic sensibilities. IIRC these were NIH grants, but the same principle applies.

    This ties back to your post about changing the reward system in science. The reason not enough scientists are out discussing science with the public is because the system as currently constituted does not reward such behavior–it is too often viewed as a distraction from “real” work. Carl Sagan was widely ridiculed by other scientists for the effort he put into public outreach. Even today, although NSF requires some statement of broader impacts and educational value in proposals, most scientists pay only lip service to these requirements. NASA does a bit better, but only because they are spending money in sufficiently large chunks that they have to educate congressional staffers about why they need so much money for these satellite projects.

  2. Recommendations for change?

    How do your voices become more influential relative to public science promotion and protection? What mechanisms would be optimal to keep science and its resource needs in front of legislators, the public and in the political parties’ priorities?

    Your post provides a lot of food for thought, but I’m not aware of where the source of scientists’ influence arises.

  3. Is the funding ratio of science earmarks / total earmarks greater or less than the ratio of science discretionary spending / total discretionary spending?

    Without this figure, it is hard to determine how restraining/ eliminating earmarks would effect research.

  4. I’d really like to get my hands on a Cell processor. I do physics numerically, and the Cell looks very interesting. The cheapest way to get your hands on a Cell is to get a PS3 (subsidized by Sony, who hopes you’ll buy games for it). As my advisor said, however, the mockery brought up by pork-barrel-busters would be endless if we did. Sad. Despite someone having built a supercomputer out of one, it’s hard to fight a soundbite/meme.

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