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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 6/13/11

Does the NSF Stand for Needless Science Funding?

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Message Lance Miller
Just before Memorial Day weekend, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn's office released a report entitled "The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope" which claims to be a "the first comprehensive overview of NSF."   Unfortunately it is nothing of the sort.    NSF has a total annual budget of about $6.9 billion dollars and funds 20% of the federally funded basic scientific research in the United States.   The foundation supports over 200,000 researchers working on tens of thousands of projects, and conducts reviews of over 42,000 research proposals each year.   Last year NSF funded 13,000 new competitive grants for scientific research.   Sen. Coburn singled out 48 projects with humorous titles and descriptions and devoted nearly half of his "comprehensive overview" to ridiculing them.  

No context is given for these supposedly "wasteful" research projects, and the report does not explain the competitive peer reviewed procedure that determines which projects get funded.   Apparently, researchers were not asked to explain their projects for the report, and several have already spoken out.   On the other hand, less than two pages of the report are devoted to NSF's successes, which include the Internet, MRI technology, nanotechnology, and many others.


Many of the "questionable NSF projects" dug up by Sen. Coburn deal with Internet social networking, virtual reality, online gaming and other human-computer interactions.   People here and around the world increasing rely on computers, the Internet and online social networks and communities in almost all aspects of our daily lives from the routine, such as planning a restaurant outing, to the revolutionary, such as planning massive social demonstrations during the Arab Spring.   It would seem that understanding how people use these technologies and exploring their potential would be of great societal benefit.  


Sen. Coburn, on the other hand, must see no merit in trying to better understand how people adapt to and use these new technologies.   He recommends eliminating the entire Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate of the NSF, the smallest with a 2010 budget of $255 million, which funds this type of research.   To look into the matter, the House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing recently. Dr. Myron Gutmann, Assistant Director of the SBE directorate at NSF was called to defend its work.  


During his opening remarks, Dr. Myron explained how the SBE funds work by "economists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists, anthropologists" and others.   In fact, he said the SBE funds half of university research including almost all of the transformative research in these areas.   He described how SBE funded research is focused on, "Understanding the brain and its development . . . from the study of intricate cellular and molecular mechanisms at the neuronal level to the network activities of the entire brain to the physical and social context in which brains process information."  


It is not hard to see how this research has implications beyond the ivory towers. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, was interviewed on CNN on Memorial Day about the mental health of our soldiers and veterans.   He said:


"In the United States Army last year, we had [out of] a force of 725,000 folks, 156 suicides. And each one of those is a tragedy. But, you know, for every one of those individuals who commit suicide, there's a whole bunch of folks who will never, ever consider committing suicide that are hurting. And that's why I think it is absolutely essential that we study and learn everything we can about the brain . . . the fact is, we just don't know as much as we need to know about the brain and the effects that are caused in the brain for these long deployments and for these repetitive deployments and for the experiences that soldiers have down in theater."       


It is very difficult to see how we can "study and learn everything we can about the brain" by eliminating funding for research that does exactly that.   If you agree with the general that this type of research is crucial then tell your congressperson that the NSF doesn't stand for needless science funding.

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Lance Miller holds a PhD in microbiology and does science diplomacy at a DC area nonprofit.
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