In Defense of the NSF

In my fine tradition of letting We Alone know about everything I'm doing last, if at all, last week I had another article published by the good folks at Science Progress. Biff-1, Conservatives-0.

A new report produced by the staff of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) rails against the National Science Foundation while illustrating a profound misunderstanding of how science is done and how the agency operates. “Under the Microscope” claims $1.2 billion in waste, fraud, duplication, and mismanagement, and $1.7 billion in unspent funds. Sen. Coburn’s review, however, is unscientific and deeply misleading, ignoring 95 percent of the foundation’s activity to pick on “silly grants” and the moral failings of its managers. Read the rest...


  1. This is good,

    Some of my non-scientist and more applied-science acquaintances have been expressing doubts about our scientific endeavors lately. These are smart people who are saying that things like the LHC or theoretical neuroscience are indulgent and people should be directing their efforts toward less abstract projects. I am of the opinion that we need ongoing research at all levels of abstraction, just as we need investment that plans for all time-scales. To me, focusing only on research with obvious, practical applications is like managing business for quarterly profits only -- it can lead to decisions that are wasteful or destructive in the long term.

    But, how do I convincingly argue this to an artist, or someone who does humanitarian work ? These people see science as useless because the benefits are not immediately apparent. It would be good to have a shortened version of this essay handy for political debates, as senator Coburn's position appears to be widespread in non-scientists.

  2. The one good thing is that if the United States screws this up, other countries will take over. Science will survive, even if the United States refuses to take the lead, and our economy will suffer accordingly.

  3. These absurd, extreme political positions can only be argued against in one way -- by pointing out the extreme consequences of their position, and suggesting a more moderate position. If there are factual errors, correcting them is important as well.

  4. Hey Michael,

    I read your article through Science Progress this morning and was quite impressed! I thought you did an excellent job of placing Coburn's outrageous scientific aspirations in perspective (and who doesn't love a good Thomas Kuhn shout-out). I appreciated how deftly you placed scientific enterprise into the appropriate contexts, whether it be the role of the social sciences, the "excesses" of funding beneficiaries, or the human element.

    I spent some time as a Fellow at the National Academies in Washington DC last Fall and frequently bounced around the city to partake of the "serious" science policy discussions. My impression is that most of these people really know what they're doing, but you're always going to have blowhard politicians like Coburn and Inhofe spitting in people's coffee and telling them it's cream. It's frustrating, for example, when people distort facts to feed a political agenda such as what's done with climate change. I've been kind interested in A) what drives these anti-intellectual views and B) what is the most effective way to counter them.

    You might be interested in a little blog post I put together which examined this issue: http://www.mikespecian.com/2011/06/01/why-facts-will-not-convince-people-of-climate-change/.