NSF negotiates with terrorists

March 18, 2016

This is funny
Right wing anti-science nuts in Congress are not going to stop attacking research grants just because the Abstracts are expressed in less technical language. Their political agenda is at work and poor understanding of the project  has nothing whatever to do with their motivations. 

22 Responses to “NSF negotiates with terrorists”

  1. qaz Says:

    This has been going on forever. I remember a (very valid and at the time extremely novel) study on hand-eye coordination, learning, and development in the early 1990s that the panel and program officers wanted to fund but was rejected at the top levels until they removed the word “Nintendo” from the title.


  2. Jonathan Badger Says:

    Before Trump, there was another Republican candidate who said: “Tax dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good — things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”


  3. The Other Dave Says:

    Old news. This trend can be blamed on Senator William Proxmire, who started awarding “Golden Fleece” awards for ‘wasteful public spending’ in the 1970s. His first award went to to NSF, for a study on”Love”.


  4. Jonathan Badger Says:

    That’s a false equivalence, TOD. While some of Proxmire’s targets were misplaced, he actually read up on a lot of his targets. He just had a low tolerance for bullshit. Space waccaloons also dislike the fact that he (like Bernie) wasn’t a big fan of NASA. But science has never been the main priority of NASA.


  5. The Other Dave Says:

    @Jonathan: I also hate government waste. But if we’re going to have NSF (or any other government agency), can’t we let them do their job? NSF uses scientific review panels, supposedly experts, to judge whether or not something is worth funding. I don’t care whether a politician reads just the title or the whole proposal. It is arrogant and misguided for a politician to over-rule the process.

    After all, we scientists don’t try to tell them how to do politics, do we?

    Oh, wait…


  6. Jonathan Badger Says:

    The NSF in particular has a problem in that for political reasons in addition to basic natural science, it has to fund a lot of dubious social science of the “let’s send out a bunch of questionnaires and do some trivial statistics on the responses” type. Then again, for equally inane political reasons the NIH is funding studies on “alternative medicine” where long debunked things like acupuncture and homeopathy are run in critical trials. The problem with saying that those proposals got through review and are therefore beyond reproach is that if the reviewers all are part of the same clique that believes in them, of course they’ll get through. It’s one thing when politicians don’t get the importance of fruit fly genetics or why primates still have to be used occasionally in research and quite another thing when they accurately point out the nakedness of the emperor.


  7. The Other Dave Says:

    “The problem with saying that those proposals got through review and are therefore beyond reproach is that if the reviewers all are part of the same clique that believes in them, of course they’ll get through.”

    You could say this about many proposals in many NIH study sections. They’re kind of a circle jerk sometimes. In contrast, NSF tends to shake things up more in review.


  8. qaz Says:

    @JonathanBadger -How arrogant to reject an entire paradigm of research without actually examining it. The idea that you think all sociological research done via questionnaires is bogus clearly shows that you have not been watching or following the sociological literature. There is good sociology and bad sociology. But I know that you know that there is also good fruit fly genetics and bad fruit fly genetics and good primate research and bad primate research. Maybe we should trust the NSF panels on their research the same way they trust ours.

    Moreover, the stuff congress is pointing out is rarely the limited techniques of sociology. It is a read of the titles as superficial as your rejection of an entire field based on the fact that you don’t understand how their data analysis works. Maybe the reason that their experimental paradigms are fuzzier than yours is because their questions are harder. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing good work, aren’t learning things, and aren’t pushing science forward.

    The emperor is NOT naked. Pointing out that his clothes are different from yours is not helpful. Especially when other people are shooting at him.


  9. Jonathan Badger Says:

    1) I’ve mostly been funded by the NSF in the past even though I’m now in the NIH camp. I’m not criticizing the NSF as a whole (or even the whole social science wing of NSF), just reminding that much like the alt-medicine types who are wasting resources in the NIH, there are crappy things funded by the NSF as well. And there is a real problem if the only people reviewing work in a field are other people in the same field if the value of the field itself is in question.

    2) The argument that certain fields can’t be criticized as empty because “they are asking more difficult questions” is pretty much what theologians have been doing when they have been challenged by atheist scientists. It generally isn’t a very convincing argument. Not all fields *are* equally valid.


  10. qaz Says:

    Never said that fields can’t be criticized as empty because they are asking more difficult questions. Just said that you can’t criticize sociology because there’s crap in it. Moreover, you don’t think bunny hopping problems exist in the NIH side as well?

    It’s Sturgeon’s law and Heinlein’s corollary. When asked about all the crap that was being published in science fiction, Sturgeon replied “Yeah, 95% of science fiction is crap. (Shrug.) 95% of everything is crap.” And then Heinlein supposedly said that “the trick is to be in the other 5%”. There is some fantastic work being done in sociology today, some of it (I assume) funded by NSF, and some of it based on some very advanced statistics applied to questionnaires (in my observation when dealing with these colleagues, often much better statistics with higher replicability than most neuroscience or genetics). In fact, given the limitations of laboratory science, I suspect that the generalizability and scientific importance of mediocre sociology is much higher than that of mediocre neuroscience or mediocre fly genetics.

    ALL scientific fields based on scientific reasoning are equally valid. If they have measures that are replicable, predictable, and allow us to engineer new structures (be they physical structures or sociological institutions), then we have to treat them as valid science. The problem with theology is that (because it is not based on scientific reasoning) when you push on it, what you find is that it does not correctly predict the world, and that the structures built on it are fragile and often perform in very different ways than designed. The problem with the alt-woo stuff is that they refuse to accept the scientific results (which is that they have no effects). To lump sociological science in with theology (or even with the alt-woo crap) is about as wrong as you can be.


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    Neither, in most cases, are the arguments of those who bash certain fields from positions of broad sweeping dismissal very convincing, JB.


  12. Jonathan Badger Says:

    @qaz –
    The problem is at the boundary cases of science. Why is sociology considered a science but history part of the non-scientific fields collectively called the “humanities” or “liberal arts”? If anything, history is closer to science as we know it.


  13. namnezia Says:

    @JBadger: “But science has never been the main priority of NASA.”



  14. Jonathan Badger Says:

    Seriously? That has to be the *least* controversial thing I’ve said here. The US and USSR weren’t into their cock-measuring space contest for science. There wasn’t a whole lot of science in that regard left to be done. Isaac Newton showed how getting things into orbit worked in 1687. He even had a figure showing it in the Principia. There was a lot of *engineering* required to do it in practice, no question. But the reason both superpowers did it was to test technologies for their ICBM systems. And even today it basically exists as corporate welfare for military contractors like Lockheed Martin.


  15. qaz Says:

    @JBadger – Short answer – a lot of history is becoming a science. History that tries to look at big picture questions is very scientific, with a very similar scientific methodology to that of evolutionary biology. Some history (particularly “Great Man History”) is more like literature, as is some of the “life at the time” history. (Both of which are highly valid and important, even if not scientific, but that’s an argument for another time.)

    Don’t be fooled by the fact that most universities keep history and sociology in liberal arts and humanities sub-colleges. At the school I went to as an undergrad, psychology lived in the liberal arts and linguistics in the sciences. Where I am now, neuroscience lives in the medical school and psychology in the liberal arts school and biomedical engineering lives in the engineering school, even though all three contain many faculty doing essentially the same thing.

    Maybe instead of trying to trash whole fields, maybe we should think about the science of specific paradigms and experiments and try to do the best work we can. (Remember, the goal is to be in that other 5%!)


  16. Ola Says:

    I do find this part rather ironic…
    It asked a half-dozen scientists […] to rate the clarity of the titles of 200 recent grants. The fellows gave a thumbs-up to 70% of the titles that had been changed, compared with only 47% of the grants whose titles were not changed as they moved through the NSF process. “We didn’t tell them which were which, and we also didn’t define clarity. But we think that difference is significant.”

    If you’re gonna make bold claims about results using sciencey language (“significant”), and your intended audience is scientists, it’s probably a good idea if your study is designed in a rigorous manner to begin with. This kind of slip-up just gives Grassley and his buds more ammunition.


  17. […] NSF negotiates with terrorists Oldest ancient-human DNA details dawn of Neanderthals: Sequence of 430,000-year-old DNA pushes back divergence of humans and Neanderthals. What We’ve Learned About Pluto The Ecologist Who Threw Starfish Why Komodo Dragons Are Like The Entire Cat Family […]


  18. namnezia Says:

    @JBadger – That’s a pretty cynical view…. what about the Cassini Probe, the Hubble Space telescope, Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner missions, they sent a probe to fucking Pluto, a lot of earth atmospheric studies, etc. etc. Plus collaborations with other space agencies. I’m pretty sure we don’t know all there is to know about other planets, deeps space and our own earth.


  19. Jonathan Badger Says:

    Yes, NASA does *some* actual science. It even funds some biology research on extremophilic bacteria (some good, some terrible like the “arsenic life” fiasco). But are those things its *priority* rather than things like ISS and other manned spaceflight boondoggles? I get it, people want to live in a Star Trek future. But just isn’t going to happen. Barring a complete overturning of the laws of physics, humanity will live out its lifespan and go extinct on *this* planet and no other.


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    You horrid buzzkill! Take that back.


  21. AcademicLurker Says:

    Barring a complete overturning of the laws of physics…

    Sounds like the right topic for a Pioneer proposal. High risk, high reward!


  22. The Other Dave Says:

    “Barring a complete overturning of the laws of physics, humanity will live out its lifespan and go extinct on *this* planet and no other.”

    Dude! It’s time to slide away from the computer, put on your pants, move out of mom and dad’s house, and start seeing the world.


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