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.