If He Was Serious, Senator Coburn Blew an Opportunity

While the YouCut program from House Republicans appeared to stall out once they came to power, the general thrust of line-item scrutiny has continued. This is a reasonable thing to do, if the scrutiny is handled in a thoughtful, thorough manner.  YouCut seemed more geared toward easy political points than recommendations for change, and that target proves difficult to resist.

Senator Coburn of Oklahoma failed to resist when he released a report yesterday outlining a host of issues he has with various accounting, oversight and grant choices made by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  There have been reports before about waste and abuse at NSF, typically in two categories: reports of bad behavior by employees and/or grant recipients; and the sound-bite ready descriptions of research programs that focus on what is done rather than what it means.  Coburn managed to smush it all together into a sloppy mess. In an effort to acknowledge the valuable contributions of basic research while arguing for a much more limited focus for the Foundation, the report fails to present a coherent argument or feasible recommendations for change.  Arguably, it’s for a lack of trying.

Coburn last waded into this area in 2009, when he introduced an amendment to strip any funding for political science research, which he saw as unnecessary since pollsters, news networks, and political parties provide all the political science research that’s needed.

The report conducts the traditional practice of taking aim at research projects that don’t address the value of the research in the abstract.  The absence of the explanation is taken as an absence of the value.  Researchers and research administrators continue to fail to provide these explanations to the public before complaints are lodged.  Alan Boyle manages to collect several of these explanations, but why is it always done after criticism is levied?

Some critics of NSF do seem to take a very limited and literal interpretation of the applications of research, which is why you see arguments that research that focuses on private companies or use of private services should only be done by those companies, because there’s no way that there could be any benefit to anyone else.  Others have argued for more effective measurement of research outcomes (not outputs), and while it’s not obvious how the NSF Science of Science Policy program will achieve this, that is an intention behind the program.  Some of this work is in Coburn’s report, but one of the referenced authors, Dan Sarewitz, raises the logical follow-up point – is Coburn also supporting the industrial policy and the social science research that goes hand-in-hand with innovation studies?  The report’s recommendations suggest not.

That the report was dumped on the last day of the Congressional week (they adjourned for the Memorial Day recess last night) suggests that the Senator’s heart really isn’t in this, as it will likely be forgotten.  The Republican Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee gave at best faint praise for the report, and will hold a hearing next week that will likely touch on some of the material in the report.

So, Senator Coburn managed to spend a lot of time and effort in putting together a collection of anecdotes that don’t do much to support his recommendations for a more narrowly focused National Science Foundation (eliminate all funding for social, behavioral and economic sciences, focus on transformative research, reduce duplication of research efforts).  They do support his arguments for better oversight and additional resources for the NSF Inspector General, but that part of the report hasn’t gotten much attention.

As I noted when the YouCut program turned its attention to NSF last December, I have no problem with public or non-scientist feedback on what NSF funds.  If Coburn thinks NSF should only support a narrowly focused conception of research, that’s a perfectly legitimate political argument.  But the way in which this report does it suggests that there is a massive failure to understand exactly what would be persuasive evidence.  The kinds of stories included in this report do nothing to suggest alternative models or rules for how to choose projects.  And if that kind of change is your ultimate goal, the lack of other arguments in favor of it makes me wonder how serious the Senator is about reform.  Senator Coburn has been focused on efforts toward transparency and greater fiscal accountability.  I suspect a serious cut in the NSF budget would diminish his interest in pursuing things further.

This should let none of us off the hook.  Those who are pushing back on this report by simply telling people to use a search engine aren’t helping.  Those who focus on Coburn’s party label (though the usual suspect has yet to weigh in) continue to put politics above a serious policy problem.  Putting aside the waste and abuse concerns (which, for better or for worse, aren’t terribly different from other agencies) the cherry-picking of silly-seeming research is a phenomena that won’t go away.  The research community needs to be more active in articulating the value of what it does and communicating that value to the public.  The NSF could help by making these kinds of explanations – rather than abstract language written for colleagues rather than the public – accessible to the public.  It won’t stop the superficial criticisms, but they will be easier to deflect.

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11 thoughts on “If He Was Serious, Senator Coburn Blew an Opportunity

  1. Nice post — though I wonder whether a lot of NSF grant recipients haven’t also been missing an opportunity.

    You suggest that the research community needs to be better at articulating and communicating the value of its research and that NSF could help by making such explanations accessible to the public.

    But NSF has been asking scientists and engineers to talk about the broader impacts of their research for over a decade! Researchers are even supposed to talk about those broader impacts in a separate paragraph of those (publicly available) abstracts.

    If proposers write about the broader impacts of their research thinking the only audience is their peers, then they are also missing a huge opportunity.

  2. Britt,

    I think you’re on point here. But, really, why would grant applicants write for any audience other than a review panel? What’s the incentive?

    As for these paragraphs being publicly available, being out there and being usable are regrettably two different things. How easily can average non-grant applying persons find, read and understand them? Coburn’s staff either couldn’t find them, found them useless, didn’t understand them, or ignored them.

    • Thanks, David.

      I realize this may sound a bit off the wall (though I think it is merely outside the box), but the incentive is autonomy.

      If the scientific community doesn’t do a good job demonstrating accountability to society, their autonomy will come under attack (or at least, under the microscope).

      NSF’s Broader Impacts Criterion (BIC) gives the scientific community a chance to respond — on its own terms — to the demand for accountability. Instead, many of scientists see BIC as an obstacle to be overcome or a necessary evil. That’s a reactive attitude. They need to be proactive, instead. Embrace BIC as an opportunity to demonstrate accountability. That’s something someone with real autonomy can do.

      Up to now, most have failed fully to embrace this opportunity. It is little wonder that Coburn’s staff might have trouble finding anything to demonstrate accountability among the abstracts of funded awards. But NSF has given folks the opportunity.

  3. I think you know this already, Britt, but we’re aiming in the same direction here.

    So, there are things to be done to change this. For the sake of space, I’ll mention big picture stuff.

    Sure, autonomy is a proper incentive (there can be others), but how are the associated rewards being connected to the individual researcher? Seems that the researcher is pretty isolated from where these fights are taking place (physically and institutionally), so they may not sense the value or the urgency.

    NSF (and similar agencies) fail themselves and their audiences by not taking Broader Impacts Criterion data and feeding them into their agency evaluation and public awareness campaigns. To the extent that’s currently done, great. But it doesn’t seem terribly systematic or thorough.

    It’s the kind of work mentioned above that I was really hoping something like Science of Science Policy could support. But absent a group of researchers willing, able and qualified to do it, a new program isn’t going to go there.

    And no, this kind of work isn’t just PR (though that’s certainly an application). It’s a kind of connecting the dots that we only seem to do in science and technology policy either after someone has done something like Senator Coburn’s staff has, or its used in a teaching context without thought for the research or practice utility connected to it.

    • I agree — we are aiming in the same direction.

      I also think that the Broader Impacts Criterion section of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 is aiming in the same direction. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, NSF does on its own institutional level, as well as what it does to encourage other institutions to develop some sort of infrastructure along the lines you suggest.

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