Republican Leadership Subjects Funding of National Science Foundation Projects to Text Message Votes

December 8, 2010

Anyone concerned about the fate of scientific research funding in the new Congress has yet more reason to worry.  Scientists are already anxious about the impact of the Republicans' plans to slash the nation's investment in research and development, which led National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins to warn researchers that their prospects for receiving funding would drop from 20% to 10%.  Now the Republican House leadership is calling for the untrained general public to judge the value of National Science Foundation (NSF) research projects and submit their votes by text message and e-mail, with the promise of crafting legislation to gut funding for projects they deem unworthy.


Incoming House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has long advocated the so-called " YouCut " project, which was stymied when the Republicans were in the minority.  Now Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE), a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, has released a YouTube video that places NSF grants in the crosshairs, targeting studies purportedly focused on "computer models" of "the on-field contributions of soccer players," as well as the modeling of "the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game and movie industries."


Under normal circumstances, Congress sets NSF's annual budget, but leaves it to NSF's trained experts to judge the value of proposed research projects through a rigorous peer review process -- and with good reason.  The politicians who have targeted specific research proposals often have a notoriously poor grasp of the projects' importance. 


Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) once fulminated about government funding for studies of "ATMs," under the mistaken impression that the research involved automatic teller machines.  Only later did he realize that the study involved Asynchronous Transfer Mode, the communications technology underlying the Internet.  During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) blasted a study of bear DNA that turned out to be essential to preserving Sarah Palin's "Momma Grizzlies" under the Endangered Species Act. 


Like Governor Sanford and Senator McCain, Congressman Smith grossly misstates the nature of the research projects he cavalierly seeks to slash.  The "soccer player" study he references involves computer scientists studying remotely connected research teams conducting "nanoscience, environmental engineering, earthquake engineering, chemical sciences, media research and tobacco research."  The "video game and movie industries" study actually involves acoustical experts "pursuing fundamental advances in computational methods while solving several particularly challenging sound rendering problems," to allow the U.S. military, among others, to create more realistic combat simulators for military trainees.


By selecting the National Science Foundation as their first target, the House Republican leadership has already sent a chilling message to researchers.  By circumventing NSF's painstaking peer review process and inviting the lay public to vote by text message on research projects they grossly caricature, the new House leadership risks dragging American science to horrifying new lows.  


#1 liberalartist on Wednesday December 08, 2010 at 9:30am

Back to the anti-science Bush-years we go…

#2 Alex (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 2:49pm

How is having the general public decide which science to fund any worse than having politicians decide?

Neither are great, but I also don’t think one approach is any worse than the other.

#3 Jason (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 3:00pm

How is taking the general public’s money for science constitutional? While the populist appeal of this stunt seems foolish, it is no more foolish than creating a bubble in academia. It used to be that private companies funded research labs because the results were worth something (think Bell labs, IBM, etc.) Now, they let the public spend (waste?) ten times more money and then they buy the rights for a bargain price.

I don’t like the partisan tone of this article. Obama and many Democrats disavow their beliefs whenever it is politically expedient, just like Republicans. The point is, why is science exempt from cuts? Why can’t the public decide where its money goes? The self-righteous smugness of the author is only exceeded by his lack of understanding of the proper role of government as outlined by the founders of this nation.

#4 Hook (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 3:05pm

It pretty much lays it out in the article. Politicians decide how much money to put into a general fund controlled by the National Science Foundation. Scientists that run that organization are the ones who choose which projects should receive funding in a rigorous peer-review process. Asking the general public to make this decision in a “shoot-from-the-hip” mass vote is absolutely ridiculous.

#5 Mark (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 3:07pm


Read the last paragraph. NSF uses peer review and knows the science the general public does not. An American Idol voting process for science funding? You’re out of your mind.

#6 David Clark (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 3:36pm

Several years have passed since I last reviewed an NSF grant. One thing I noticed was that NSF seemed to be more concerned with pressurizing researchers to take minority students into their labs than in the quality of their research. I have heard other research scientists comment on the same issue. Needless to say, those of us who criticized this in our reviews have not been asked to review again. Liberal hypocrites began politicalizing science long before Dubya and the creationist idiots got in on the act. What goes around comes around. If the scientific community objects to political interference then it needs to start practicing what it preaches and clean up its own act.

#7 John (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 3:48pm

Here is a synopsis of what peer-review means Alex,

“Peer review is a generic term for a process of self-regulation by a profession, or a process of evaluation involving qualified individuals within the relevant field. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards, improve performance, and provide credibility.”

So people within the field, familiar with the subject matter, capable of grasping the importance of same, are the ones making the decisions. Not the general public and certainly not the politicians who have too much on their plate as it is to properly research a subject, before making an educated decision on the matter.

And Jason:
Science was not exempt from cuts under the old model. The cuts were made by an educated panel of individuals, who were required to undergo a process by which they could determine the necessity of funding certain projects. Denial of, or “cuts” in funding went to the projects which didn’t pass the peer-review process.

The new process would substitute for the educated minority; the mass, largely uneducated majority including grandma and grandpa who need to be reminded to first try restarting the computer if it’s not running properly and fans of Ke$ha.

So tell me, when it comes to determining whether funding for grizzly bear DNA research should be continued or discontinued (w/out the benefit of some detailed scientific analysis, let alone the short blurb in this article on the part it played in saving grizzly bears from possible extinction) who do you want making the decision? “Git er Done”, or Bill Nye?

#8 Mike (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 5:26pm

I actually don’t think this guy is serious. I mean, this idea is so dumb, it can’t be! I think he’s just trolling everyone to see how upset we can get. Power’s gone to his head.

#9 Bill Braski (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 6:04pm

Jason: The founders didn’t like the idea of the general public being able to dictate everything via simple majority. Hence the electoral college and not directly electing the President.

Also, you seem to forget our system, as designed by the founders, is not a direct democracy. It is a representative republic. People vote for their senators and representatives, not directly on the issues.

The Constitution was modified following the rules laid out by the founders, to allow the government them to collect taxes directly from the people.

Finally, leaving everything up to corporations is a stupid idea. They’ll only make what sells and only to people that can afford it. A system like that offers less freedom for everyone and goes against the principles of the founders.

You also seem to forget that the US became a world super power based not upon corporate labs, but government labs. NASA got the US into space. ARPA gave us the foundations that make up the Internet. The government built the interstate system.

Corporations in charge will mean research is only done on things they can sell us, we’ll fall behind and the rest of the world will blow by. The corporations will suck us dry, move overseas and the US will be a whithered husk of a nation.

#10 Jeremy (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 7:05pm

Oh man, this country is in trouble.  Republican policy and some of the painfully stupid comments above make me worry.  Science is the economic engine of the country, it’s pretty simple.  Research free of the pressures of profits yields immeasurable economic benefit.  The examples are too numerous to name but the internet alone has probably brought more direct economic and social benefit to this country than every cent ever spent on science from its founding.  That’s what’s so disheartening about the farcical propaganda that passes for politics these days - it’s fundamentally against the interests of the very people mouthing it.  Idiots parroting nonsense about the abolition of government, completely blind to the fact that they are fighting for their own enslavement and impoverishment.  Champions of the free market, totally unaware that they are just stooges for well funded special interests whose only aim is to subvert democracy for the sake of profit.  Christian zealots ironically allied with supply siders, proselytizing stupidity as the one true way.  Meanwhile we are falling far behind in education and innovation.  Cut every cent for education and science and you’ll get even more ignorance and poverty and the deficit won’t change one bit.

#11 tori (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 8:29pm

I guess there not getting any new cars, cellphones, tv’s, food, buildings, roads or anything. 

If this passes we will morn the US for it will die without the ability to research new and innovated ways to change/improve the world. 

I feel sorry for those lives that will be lost due to the lack of research to prevent building from falling in earth quakes or being destroyed in hurricanes.  It will be a failure of government that kills them not the buildings. There are two super volcanoes and a subduction zone which are still large unknowns.

to everyone who says the founders of the nation created the system go back to history class.  The system is based of the one used by the 6 nations Indians.

#12 drewthepuck (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 8:35pm

Please let me decide which DOD projects to cut…

#13 Jessica (Guest) on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 10:31pm

This can’t seriously be happening, can it?!

#14 Joe1265 (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 6:50am

Republican - Democrat - WHATEVER! 

Pretty much the next 10 years can be formulated out of this Thomas Friedman article:

Their Moon Shot and Ours

#15 Loving_Troll (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 8:33am

...once fulminated about government funding for studies of “ATMs,” under the mistaken impression…

... Oh… THAT mistaken impression… RIIIIIIIIIIGHT

#16 Jason (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 9:27am

As I stated, the general public deciding where funding goes is basically a stunt. I was not coming out in favor of it. Instead, it seems that if we want the efficiency of the DoD and the effectiveness of the DMV, then the government is perfect for controlling science funding.

In short, get government back to its constitutional limits.

#17 John (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 9:53am

It says in the constitution congress has a responsibility to support science and technology development. Thanks Founders!

#18 Jen (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 10:20am

Science means nothing if we don’t enlighten the masses. 

Although I do not agree with the idea of this policy change (if its even real), I can see where we are wrong as scientist.  We need to make science more accessible to the general public so that they understand why it is important and how beneficial it is in their daily life. I’m not saying we should expect them to understand the intricate workings of a complicated analytical system!

Instead of pointing fingers and worry about what we can’t control maybe we should all look in the mirror and give the nation a reason to trust our judgment of where funding belongs.

#19 David Clark (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 10:29am

I do not know whether John #7 is a naive outsider or a dishonest academic. Pretending that peer review is all based on expert scientific opinion is what liberal academia would like the underpeople to believe. Over hte years I have reviewed grants for NIH, NSF, DOE and DOA. Of these NSF is clearly the most politicalized (in the ideological sense). As such it deserves what it is getting.

For the record here are the actual NSF reviewing guidelines for the Biology area. Taken from:

#20 David Clark (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 10:35am

Sorry, I gave the NSF web address and got cut off. Here are the reviewing guidelines:

What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields? How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project? (If appropriate, the reviewer will comment on the quality of prior work.) To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts? How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity? Is there sufficient access to resources?
What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?35
How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?
NSF staff will give careful consideration to the following in making funding decisions:
Integration of Research and Education
One of the principal strategies in support of NSF’s goals is to foster integration of research and education through the programs, projects and activities it supports at academic and research institutions. These institutions provide abundant opportunities where individuals may concurrently assume responsibilities as researchers, educators, and students, and where all can engage in joint efforts that infuse education with the excitement of discovery and enrich research through the diversity of learning perspectives.
Integrating Diversity into NSF Programs, Projects, and Activities
Broadening opportunities and enabling the participation of all citizens, women and men, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities, are essential to the health and vitality of science and engineering. NSF is committed to this principle of diversity and deems it central to the programs, projects, and activities it considers and supports.

Notice how blatant the politicalization is. Note too that the NSF STAFF will enforce the political correctness in case right-wing extremist scientists (like myself) place too much weight on the science. Presumably, if we are to believe NSF then European and Japanese science are unhealthy due to lack of African-Americans. In reality, US dominance in science has been steadily shrinking over the last few decades while unhealthy Europeans have been cobbling together the Large Hadron Collider etc etc.

#21 Mawi (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 11:06am

While I personally think that it is always a ridiculous idea to cut funding for science, let the public go ahead and vote to do it.  Heck that means the USA will just have to buy even more of their weapons and technology from Germany and Japan and when they run out of money, then those countries will just sell more to China.

#22 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 12:08pm

@No. 8 ... why would he NOT be serious? This is the Congress the tea party types wanted and what they voted for.

@No. 14 ... please. If you’re going to wail about the decline of U.S. science , cite somebody better than Tom “My Head is Flat” Friedman.

#23 economics101 (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 12:09pm

I have to say the outlook for the rest of the world is bright with the USA taking itself out of the science/research/education race. I mean there’s a big minus sign on US economy as it is but if we give you one or two more decades all that will be left is a bunch of uneducated consumers

Now “all” Europe has to compete against is China/Russia while the US fades into oblivion as every so-called Superpower did in the past.

A European/German

#24 klouchis on Friday December 10, 2010 at 6:22pm

Hi Economics101,

I think you are right and you are wrong.  I agree that the scientific outlook for the rest of the world is bright compared to the outlook of the United States.  I just disagree that this is a new development

I myself am a graduate student (PhD Electrical Engineering) in the USA.  The biggest problem with our (meaning the USA) scientific decision making ability isn’t with our day to day political decisions.  The problem occurred is when our government decided that it is no longer important to educate our children to understand math and science.  Just look at who the researchers are at the USA universities anyways.  Many of the are not Americans and did the majority of their education in their home countries.  The USA has gone on for decades having other countries educate their citizens in math and science.  It is much cheaper to educate someone to be a researcher for 4-6 years then it is to educate someone from age 5-18 then teach them how to be a researcher.

That being said I don’t intend to let political BS get in the way of my country’s academic pursuits.  It will definitely be tougher without the funding,  but if we can just figure out that we need to teach younger generations how to add without using their overpriced i<noun> then we just might figure out that we can still crank out top notch research as well.


#25 Max (Guest) on Saturday December 11, 2010 at 10:34am

This YouCut idea is sweeping the nation and empowering us simple folk. Why, just the other day I was getting my appendix removed, when my surgeon handed me the scalpel, and said, “You cut!” I felt so empowered!

#26 Jorge Kafkazar (Guest) on Saturday December 11, 2010 at 5:52pm

The Climategate Papers (have you actually read any of them?) reveal that the peer review process has been seriously compromised by incestuous selection of reviewers. It is also relevant that researchers have withheld public-funded data in violation of FOI and transparency requirements. The “self-policing” system is clearly off the track, and something must be done. Is this the answer? I’m not sure it is, but it necessarily follows the failure of the “good ol’ boy” peer network. It’s far too late for pious hand-wringing.

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