via New Scientist:
The incoming Republican majority in the House of Representatives has selected the National Science Foundation (NSF) as the first target for a “YouCut Citizen Review“, in which ordinary Americans are being asked to identify “wasteful spending that should be cut”.
For several weeks now, the website of Eric Cantor, the incoming House majority leader, has featured a project called YouCut, in which people are asked to vote by text message and email on a series of proposed spending cuts. Each of the winners has been put to the floor of the House for a vote.
The selection of NSF as the first target will send a chilling message to researchers. The YouCut Citizen Review site includes a link to the NSF’s Award Search site, and a form for people to submit examples of offending projects.
“If you find a grant that you believe is a waste of your taxdollars [sic], be sure to record the award number,” participants are told. “[W]e will publish a report outlining the grants identified by the YouCut community.”
The suggested search terms – “success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus” – and the contrast drawn between “worthy research in the hard sciences” and “questionable projects” hint that researchers funded by the NSF’s Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences have the most to fear.
On the one hand, I like the idea of government transparency. On the other hand, I’m terrified that non-scientists will be making decisions about the worthiness of various scientific research. Most Americans, myself included, are far from being qualified enough to decide the fate of something like “Thermodynamics of Amorphous and Nanocrystalline Si and Si:H Thin Films“, for example. For all I know, this could be a dud, or it could lead to a major breakthrough in energy storage that will change the world. I don’t understand it, frankly, which leads to a bigger problem: fear.
People fear what they don’t understand. The idea that an individual, motivated by fear, could veto an important scientific grant because they don’t understand it is sad. In this case, there are two fears: people are afraid because they don’t understand, and they are afraid of the current economic situation. This program allows them to take money from science and, if not put it back in their own pockets, at least lash out at what they’re afraid of. It makes science a sort of enemy. Now that’s really sad.
I’m curious as to why the NSF was chosen as the guinea pig for this experiment. Frankly, I’m surprised they called it an “experiment” — real experiments cost too much money, apparently — so let’s call it a magic trick instead.
In case you’re interested, here’s the NSF’s Merit Review process — looks pretty solid to me.