Senator Coburn from Oklahoma is now leading the latest Republican charge against science. In a recently released so-called exposé of wasteful spending at the NSF he shows his deep seated ignorance of how science is conducted and what its significance is. While several bloggers have already eloquently written about his report’s misrepresentations and distortions of what he calls frivolous science (here, here and here), one thing that struck me is his view of what “transformative” science really entails. A few years back the NSF amended its grant review criteria to consider whether the proposal under consideration explored “potentially transformative concepts“. Sen Coburn spends about 25 pages outlining projects that in his expert scientific opinion are not only not transformative, but also frivolous and wasteful. However if you read closely the descriptions of such projects many of the distortions become evident. He particularly picks on studies in the social sciences, as if studying the nature of race relations in America, or the best methods to disseminate science to kids, or the growing effect of social networks on the structure of society, or studying the democratic process, or the best way to involve the community in scientific discovery thus increasing science literacy, are not important issues that affect us all. Even studies which the potential implications for improved technology are evident such as teaching robots incredibly complex tasks such as riding a bike or folding laundry are ridiculed. Does Coburn really thing that scientists are designing a laundry-folding robot to help out with their housework? Is he THAT narrow-minded?
Furthermore Coburn’s report shows an utter lack of understanding of the scientific process. It is very rare that a single study will be transformative on its own. Rather most projects work to solve little bits of the puzzle at a time, creating useful basic information which gradually becomes incorporated into the body of knowledge and ultimately leading to a transformative concept. One has to look at the entire portfolio of a funding agency or directorate within the agency to grasp the overall scope of the research, which when all put together it becomes transformative. Science funding agencies only fund a tiny percentage of proposals submitted to them, and these are reviewed by panels of experts and managed by scientific officers who keep an eye on the big picture. How does the senator claim to be more of an expert than the hundreds of scientists reviewing these proposals.
Finally, what most pissed me off is his call to eliminate (or consolidate) most of the education programs run by the NSF. The senator claims that there is too much overlap with other STEM programs run by other federal agencies. But the NSF has a long history of supporting STEM education, increasing scientific literacy, reducing achievement disparities in underrepresented groups and notably in integrating research and education. Unlike other federal funding agencies the NSF requires that proposals have a plan to disseminate their science as part of their broader impacts. Many of these educational activities serve as an important means by which scientists can communicate their science with the public and train the next generation of sciences.
I urge you to call your representatives in congress and ask them to support basic science and science education.