So we’ve looked at the research that seemed to motivate the following criteria that Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) has proposed that all NSF-fund research be certified as fulfilling:
- ”… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
- “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
- “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”
Now I’d like to break down why these criteria reflect a poor understanding of science and the National Science Foundation. Let’s just go through each point.
- First, Smith has the theoretical point of NSF backwards. The legislation that founded NSF put the mission “to initiate and support basic scientific research and programs to strengthen scientific research potential and science education programs at all levels in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, social, and other sciences” before the recognition that such fundamental research is “essential to our national security, and to our health, economic welfare, and general well-being“. NSF is told to evaluate how the research it helps produce can improve society, but the mission has always been promoting the progress of science first.
- This isn’t a bad criterion per se, but NSF already does want research to be “groundbreaking”. The grant process is incredibly competitive. But the thing is, groundbreaking research that answers important questions sometimes requires work that sounds silly to people outside the field. Looking at duck penises or lesbian lizards are typically considered funny or wasteful, but they’re also important in understanding how evolution affects sexuality. Penicillin came from research on old folk remedies of people using dirt and food as mold sources to prevent infection.
- Preventing “duplication” sounds like the silliest criterion to all the science-minded folk I know. It might be how we’re reading it, because we’re convinced it would also prevent different experiments that test the same theories. If that’s right, it means we better hope the first person the government funds on any topic is right, because otherwise it would just be lost time for all the other researchers who can’t start their own projects. But even if it doesn’t, it sounds bizarre. Reproducibility is a major factor in science, and there’s currently something of a crisis in how many major results can’t be replicated in labs besides those of the original researchers. If anything, we could actually use more help to encourage researchers to try to duplicate new results in literature.