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December 7, 2010 AT 10:31 am

US Citizens Asked to Suggest Budget Cuts for the NSF

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.


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11 Comments

  1. America itself is still an “experiment” in government. I hope it always will be. As to your terror at “non-scientists” judging the worthiness of things scientific, do you have the same terror over trials by jury? Do you wring your hands over the prospect of, gasp, uneducated people voting in elections? Bigotry takes many forms.

  2. @Wayne – john didn’t say anything about voting or trials by jury, please keep on topic, thanks.

  3. This strikes me as a troll. I think his point is to anger his opponents (who presumably support NSF), otherwise he would have picked scientific studies that would push more buttons with his base.

  4. @Peter — indeed. but he can still do massive amounts of irreparable damage before he decides he’s made his point.

  5. Eliminating the entire NSF budget would save about 1% of the defense budget or the social security budget, so purely mathematically this can’t make any significant difference. It’s political pandering, but I completely agree with John: it’s political pandering that could do a lot of damage.

  6. It actually seems like an interesting idea. What would happen if tens of thousands of people suggested cutting, for example, funding for the alternative engine for the joint strike fighter (F-35). Or military-focused foreign aid.

  7. I am tempted to suggest that it should be re-purposed, and used to submit examples of politicians, and politically-appointed positions that was a thousand times more wasteful than even the lamest NSF spent dollar.

  8. "On the other hand, I’m terrified that non-scientists will be making decisions about the worthiness of various scientific research."

    If it makes you feel any better, think of it as citizens making decision about how their money is being spent. And we’re all qualitfied to judge whether or not “Thermodynamics of Amorphous and Nanocrystalline Si and Si:H Thin Films“ deserves funding, because it’s our money.

    Hopefully without getting too ranty, there’s no enumerated power which gives the Federal government the authority to funnel taxpayer money into anything like the NSF, or NEA, or PBS. And while some would say that that ship has sailed already, I don’t believe that just because some thing is the way it is now, means that it’s right, or that it needs to stay that way.

    And really, who’s to say that the citizens who take enough of an interest in the funding of the NSF to take part in this You Cut "experiment" aren’t more qualified to determine where that funding goes than the bureaucrats who currently run the ssytem?

  9. I think what Wayne skips over is that in both grant review processes and juries, a considerable amount of time and effort goes into instructing and informing people to give them enough information to make a rational decision. What Cantor’s site does has nothing of that built in. It’s basically asking people to vote to cut strange sounding science projects. I hope you all recall Palin complaining about fruit fly research being a waste of money.

  10. @Mike Rossiter: it’s not your money. It’s the Nation’s money. Can you decide not to pay for nuclear weapons? Or to fund Osama bin Laden to fight communism? Or to pay the $750K salary of that city manager from Bell, CA? No you can’t, because it isn’t your money. You can vote to choose who makes these decisions if you want, but you don’t get to make them yourself.

  11. @Eric: The only mechanism the Federal government has for raising revenue is taxes (lending only changes the time period during which taxes revenue is used, borrowing today means paying off that loan with tax money tomorrow), which have to be collected from you, me, and the rest of the population. The amount of money spent determines, either today or down the road, how much needs to be removed from the private sector in order to pay for that spending.

    Furthermore, I can and do decide what I want taxpayer money spent on, and I can and do inform my elected officials of my decisions, and in the event that they don’t agree with me, I can and do encourage other voters and candidates to replace that official. That’s how a democratic republic works, I’m fine with that.

    Closer to the original intent of johngineer’s original post though: I have no idea why the NSF is the guinea pig for this. It would seem to me, politically at least, the NEA or NEH would make better choices.

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