Please Stop Giving Chris Mooney Low-Hanging Fruit

The stimulus legislation has provided fodder for that time honored tradition of targeting specific line items for their apparent ridiculousness.  While they can make for good sound bites and PR copy, frequently such items are actually of some use.

You’ve probably heard Governor Jindal, get roundly criticized on many points for his response to the President’s address earlier this week.  One of those was his criticism of the stimulus funding “volcano monitoring.”  Putting aside the fact that his cited figure for volcano monitoring was actually for all U.S. Geological Survey spending, there is the irony of the Governor of Louisiana arguing against a measure that would help mitigate a natural disaster.  But it also feeds the fire Mr. Mooney occasionally stokes about a Republican War on Science.  As his war downplays the notion that using science for political purposes is a universal trend – not a partisan one – such low-hanging fruit perpetuates an idea that causes more problems than it solves.

Unfortunately, Governor Jindal’s example is not an isolated incident in the last 12 months.  Other recent examples:

During the recent general election campaign, Alaska Governor Palin dismissed fruit fly research as a waste of money.  But the fruit fly is something of a workhorse in genetic research, which would help advance the state of science dear to one of her concerns, children with special needs.

During that same campaign, Senator John McCain railed against a study of bear DNA as an example of earmarks gone crazy, including it in a television ad.  Now Senator McCain has a legitimate grievance about earmarks, as they can allow for items to be funded that might not otherwise pass review criteria.  But that’s the more substantive argument – that earmarks are bad, not that researching bear DNA is stupid.  In this particular case, the study contributes to the efforts in measuring the grizzly population.  He joined in on the stimulus complaints by singling out beaver management and support of astronomy (Apparently you can’t link to individual Tweets.  Scroll to the afternoon of February 27 to find the specifics, or go to this screen capture).

We also have the new chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, complaining about the removal of fish passage barriers.

This kind of earmarks manages to bungle things two ways.  They obscure the real debate and challenge of earmarks by reducing them to sound bites.  That same reduction undercuts the value of science and associated research.  But the recent rash of Republican ridicule reduces tensions between science and politics to a single party issue.  Steele, Palin, McCain and Jindal are following in the footsteps of others.  Perhaps the politician best know for such grandstanding is the man behind the Golden Fleece Awards (1975-1988) – Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin.  And he was a Democrat.

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15 thoughts on “Please Stop Giving Chris Mooney Low-Hanging Fruit

  1. Two thoughts on this:

    Should the federal govenment fund all science that is worthwhile and valuable? If so, who determines what is worthwhile and valuable. If not, where do we draw the line and how do we draw it. Even if some of the examples above are ‘good science’, a debate must take place and the funding must be challenged in order to keep science funding sane. I know politicians would rather score points than make a point, so they pick earmarks that sound a little wacky to the layman. Still, the questioning of earmarks must continue!

    That said, the earmarks in question are almost inconsequential when compared to the size of the Federal Budget. I wish politicians on both sides would act like statesmen and address the failed social programs and inefficient military spending that is truly the cause of our staggering deficits. The all seem to be fiddling while the nation goes up in flames.

  2. “Perhaps the politician best know for such grandstanding is the man behind the Golden Fleece Awards (1975-1988) – Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin. And he was a Democrat.”

    It just depends upon who is in power.

    I agree with Jim Clarke about the fiddling by our “leaders,” while the Nation goes up in smoke.

  3. Back in the fifties when I became aware of science and politics, politicians were considered low life bums who could not be trusted. Scientists were thought of as pure seekers of truth whose word carried weight.

    This week the largest tax increase in history has been proposed based on the word of scientists working in a political organization. The science used to justify a tax on carbon has yet to be independently validated. Also this week the most publicized climate scientist in the country has called for civil disobedience to advance a political cause.

    If we want people to be more supportive of science, we first need to restore the credibility of scientists.

    Well at least politicians are still a bunch of bums.

  4. Some one, some where can justify each and every bit of spending, even in that travesty the president call a “stimulus package.”. From volcano monitoring to bear DNA they are all are good programs. But do they all deserve to be funded?

    The fact is we should have a limited budget, therefore spending should be prioritized. Is all science spending justified in the long grand scheme of things? I think not. And that is what Proxmire, Jundal, et al are pointing out, not all good things should be funded. And this, David, is where your analysis falls short.

    Prioritizing is not not anti-science, it’s fiscal restraint.

    Unfortunately, there’s not enough restraint in either party.

  5. If the criticism I mentioned actually included the point made by Sparkey and others – that not everything good can be funded – then I would agree. But it doesn’t. It’s always framed in the sense of ‘doesn’t this sound silly, let’s cut it’. It may make good ‘populist’ points, but it’s not substantive criticism. They don’t ask the question whether or not something is valuable, they assume it is wasteful.

    I maintain that a more useful earmarking criticism would be to confront the process rather than individual earmarks. The criticism of science earmarks also makes it too easy to paint the criticizers as anti-science. That particular tactic I find counterproductive, and was the motivation behind the title of the post.

  6. So David, are you saying that an argument against earmarks should not involve questioning the broader utility of utility of individual earmarks? Or are you saying you should only question them if they are not earmarks of research funds? Or are you saying that people should question earmarks of research funds but not if you’re a Republican, because that feeds into the “war on science” rhetoric?

  7. Clearly I’ve been ineffective on this all the way around. Short term – the political points made by the manner of criticism are hiding the legitimate policy debate.

    My observation is that the criticism about these earmarks is framed badly. The frame is “Isn’t this item stupid? Let’s cut it.” When targeted against science line items, this frame makes the critic appear anti-science. With this frame coming out from mostly Republican mouths of late, it gives ammo to those wishing to perpetuate the war on science rhetoric.

    The framing of earmark criticism should be along the lines of “Why is this here?” “Why couldn’t this be awarded through competitive review?” That frame can be applied to individual items, and depending on the presence (or absence) of a pattern to the earmarks, could be used to criticize earmarks in general.

  8. It’s interesting that you should mention competitive review. My experience has been that that means scientists deciding (within a category)both what is important to study, and how it should be studied.

    Sometimes an earmark can be that some people think a problem is important to them, but it might not rate out in a panel based on who composes the panel and their views of what is important, plus how good the particular proposal is technically at studying the topic.

    My experience has been that there is “good pork” and “bad pork” and to some extent “pork is in the eyes of the beholder.” This is true regardless of whether it is science or infrastructure or any other porky object.

  9. You bring up a great point, that some activities with worthwhile goals don’t survive competitive review (and while I’d welcome a different kind of review to decide these things, I don’t see it happening in our current system). There should be the opportunity to bring such items, and why they are needed, to light. Current soundbite analysis of earmarks doesn’t lend itself to that.

  10. At face value, the earmark for a tatoo removal “machine” sounds dumb. But the idea behind it is to help ex-gang member re-integrate into society. The machine is for the Los Angeles area which is notorious for gang problems. As one who lives in this area, I think it is a good idea.

    However, does that mean the taxpayers from Ohio should help pay for it?
    That is where I disagree with a federal earmark. This burden is for Los Angelinos to fix. If we choose to spend our tax dollars in other areas, that is our choice.

    A parapharase of a quote I recently heard:
    We aren’t truly free until we can be comfortable with allowing people to bear the consequences of their own bad decisions. And not feel that it is our obligation to fix it for them.

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