Public Review of NSF Awards Doesn’t Have to Be a Bad Thing

Thanks to a link to one of my periodic dismissals of the Mooney ‘war on science’ meme, I’ve been getting an upsurge in traffic.  Excellent, though it really demonstrates the difference in magnitude between this little blog and a piece of the ScienceBlogs mothership.  It also demonstrates a lack of engagement from the author with the post he links to, as my criticisms of the ‘war on science’ meme go far beyond the selective application of it to Republicans.

As it happens, the post that links to mine is on an issue that really isn’t that connected to the “war on science” unless you’re looking for excuses to rail against the incoming Republican leadership of the U.S. House.  Those not aligned with the Republicans already have their reasons, and those who are aligned with the Republicans probably aren’t looking to rail against the incoming House leadership.

Apparently, as an extension of the Republicans’ YouCut program, where the Republicans have the people vote on programs to cut from the budget, the Minority Whip’s office is reviewing federal agencies.  The National Science Foundation (NSF) is first up, and Minority Whip Cantor is asking people to go through the NSF awards grant database and highlight anything that they think is wasteful.  A read of the YouCut page does not suggest he’s trying to single out science funding in his search for low-hanging budget fruit (perhaps the fellow on the Science and Technology Committee who doesn’t think the NSF is Constitutional would be).

The execution of this project is pretty lousy, targeted at political outcomes much, much more than making meaningful policy changes.  Looking at the targeted programs in the YouCut program, most of them are relatively small in terms of funding (this week’s candidates are all under $50 million – a tiny fraction of a percentage point of the federal budget), and many seem to be targets more for political purposes than actual fraud, waste, unnecessary duplication or abuse.  The reporting mechanism is particularly lousy as it won’t be able to collect any meaningful data about grants or programs.  It’s more about what people don’t like, without room for any explanation.  Finally, a program like this, placed on the website of a political operation, makes it really easy to politicize the whole thing, and roll it into some pale imitation of Senator William Proxmire’s grandstanding back in the 1980s.  ‘Great soundbites’ lousy policies.

That said, I see no reason why the public shouldn’t provide feedback to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its grantees about grant proposals that they think are duplicative or wasteful.  It is public money being spent, and if grantees can’t explain their work to the public, I don’t think they’ve earned the right to it.  There is the matter of how such feedback is conducted.  Rep. Cantor is doing it the wrong way to achieve meaningful reform (and plenty of people already come up with grants for stuff that seems ridiculous), but he’s shown little evidence that he’s interested in such a thing.  The NSF and other research agencies can make their grant award data more readily accessible (it’s not obviously part of NSF’s Open Government Directive page) and engage the public with why various research grants deserve the funding they receive.  Who knows, you might just nudge scientific understanding communication up a bit.


7 thoughts on “Public Review of NSF Awards Doesn’t Have to Be a Bad Thing

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