Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Recipe for Junk Science: take 1 part crowdfunding + 2 parts congressional oversight and mix.

Given the dire state of the economy it is not surprising that there is a lot of concern about the financing of research. This comes in two forms. Scientists anxiously seek new sources to augment limited federal funding, while government officials fret about the public getting value for its investment in science.

On the first issue, some investigators have been turning to ‘crowdfunding’, using sources such as Kickstarter, FundaGeek,  SciFund Challenge and others to raise money for their labs. The pluses and minuses of this trend are nicely discussed in a recent blog post on In the Pipeline ( While there may be some positive features of crowdfunding such as getting the public more involved in science, to this curmudgeon the pluses are far outweighed by the negatives. Ultimately success in public fundraising is contingent on ‘selling’ your science, leading inevitably to a race to the bottom where scientists/salesmen promise ever more to their supporters.

On the other issue, this week’s SCIENCE reports on a proposal from congressional Republicans to alter the way the National Science Foundation awards grants, ostensibly to improve the quality of the research being supported. The “High Quality Research Act” authored by Representative Lamar Smith of Texas would require the NSF to certify that its grant awards address ‘national interests’ and “problems of utmost importance to society”.  Aside from the obvious fact that most basic research does not immediately address ‘national interests’, this ploy is obviously a step toward squelching science that contradicts the ideology of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. Will unbiased climate science be considered in the national interest by a Texas Republican? How about research on alternative energy sources? How about therapeutic cloning? However, maybe “research” supporting creationism could pass congressional scrutiny!

Political intrusion of this type is just about the worst thing that could happen to American science and technology. If we want to guarantee that we lose our technological leadership to competitors like China and India, then the “High Quality Research Act” is the way to go.

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