Rand Paul Introduces Senate Bill To Allow Non-Experts Vet What Science Is Worth Funding

This week, Rand Paul introduced a bill (S.1793 – to be cited as the BASIC Research Act) to the United States senate that would fundamentally change how Federal research grants are reviewed and how funding is distributed. For each panel for a federal research grant, this bill proposes that the panel must include the following two reviewers –

(1) at least one individual who is not professionally affiliated with any academic or research institution, has not been professionally affiliated in the 10 years preceding the date of inclusion on the panel, and is an expert in a field unrelated to the field of research under which the grant proposal was submitted; and

(2) at least one individual who shall serve primarily as a ‘‘taxpayer advocate’’ (defined as someone whose main focus is on the value proposed research delivers to the taxpayer).

As ScienceInsider reports, this would eliminate the current internal watchdog office for the National Science Foundation, and instead implement an entity that randomly reviews proposals to make sure that the research being proposed provided values for taxpayers. This office would have power to unilaterally veto any research they deemed unworthy of funding.

Rand Paul, the politician who has led the path to implement this bill.
Rand Paul. Image via. Wikimedia Commons.

These are problematic for a variety of reasons. The most obvious point is that having two non-experts on the panel is entirely counterproductive to trying to decide whether research is worth funding or not. Even though the first individual required would still presumably be a scientist who is ostensibly interested in good-faith efforts to award funding to deserving proposals, his non-expertise would be entirely unhelpful.

Research necessarily interacts at the interface between what we know and what is still undiscovered, and it takes in-depth knowledge to even understand where that interface is. It takes a healthy amount of time invested and prior reading to understand where a field is active in at any given time, and to understand where the current challenges and setbacks are occurring. At best, the first individual proposed to be added to the panel would be able to give some broad suggestions, and it would be mostly a waste of their time (which seems odd for a proposal acting to eliminate waste). In the future should I ever be a reviewer on a grant panel as someone with expertise on biotechnology and interfacial science, I would not be comfortable reviewing anything from stem cells to climate change to renewable fuels. If anything, my decision would muddle up the decision, as the other folks on the panel would have a much more thorough understanding of why certain research is worth funding.

The second reviewer proposed is clearly even worse. It has all the problems of the first reviewer, does not require them to have any sort of scientific expertise whatsoever, and shifts the focus to what benefits the taxpayer, rather than the viability and novelty of the science being discovered. This has many unfortunate implications. First of all, it vastly shifts the priority away from a lot of fundamental, natural sciences that don’t appear to have any immediate benefit (unless this taxpayer benefit includes the future human race travelling to another star system within a few centuries, which I don’t think is a high priority for these panelists).

Would this panelist see any taxpayer benefit in the recent Neutron Star Collision? Or the recent discovery of half of the universes’ missing regular matter? What if the panelist thinks that anthropogenic climate change is a myth, and follows suit to eliminate any atmospheric research helping us understand solutions to the problem? These are all avenues of research worth pursuing, and similar questions in the future could easily be left unsolved because a panelist thinks there’s no value to the taxpayer.

There is currently a tradition every year for conservative politicians in the United States to create “wastebooks“, lists of publicly-funded research that doesn’t meet the authors’ criteria for research worth spending taxpayer money on. These partisan books often ignore the value in working on certain projects and often characterizes some science as unnecessary without looking into the deeper picture of why these problems are interesting. Scientists have dismissed and refuted many of these wastebook claims, yet politicians continue to publish these books year after year (flat attempts at humor are apparently required).

There are many non-scientist citizens who may not understand it may be a problem to ignore science that seems abstract and useless and focus on projects that have an obvious application. Of course, it’s always good to pursue paths of research that are promising and likely will bear fruit for technological and scientific innovation, but this ignores the value in basic science (and to some extent, the scientific process itself). We don’t always have a good idea of what science is useful or not, and that’s why science exists, to figure it out in the first place.

When the laser was developed or the phenomenon of relativity was discovered, there was no obvious application for these discoveries. Yet, the laser is nearly ubiquitous in everyday technologies, and we wouldn’t be able to use a GPS or land on Mars without relativity. Basic science is usually some of the first science to be overlooked, because it often appears useless at first glance, yet it is fundamental to the functioning of future human society. Reviewers who are only interested in taxpayer interest (with veto power, I might add) are likely to overlook this.

Ultimately, even researchers are unlikely to predict what science is going to revolutionize humankind, or what science is going to be a total waste of resources. By the very nature of the process of discovery, we are unlikely to predict ahead of time what we are going to find (or else we would have found it already). At the boundaries of what we know and what we don’t, we have an array of exciting hypotheses and guesses as to what path is worthwhile to pursue, but we don’t have a map. Scientists are there to develop one. All we have is human desire to probe the unknown, and a variety of methodological tools to get there. This method works, and we have the technology, hospitals, and improved quality of life to prove it. One project is highly unlikely to make or break any of these endeavors, but it’s certainly not going to help if there is an institutional barrier implemented to finding many things out.

While citizens should be informed and have a stake in what sorts of of technologies need to be developed, deciding who gets funding on an individual grant level isn’t one of them, especially at a level where partisan bias will run rampant and prevent necessary research from getting the support it deserves. While I have previously stated that science is already political, this further influences research to become more partisan and subject to political dogmatism. The process has already worked well and bore fruit for us so far. Introducing this political influence could directly impact our scientific impact (particularly if the topics up for debate are politically charged fields like stem cells or climate research). Those involved with the research already have a better idea than anyone else what research deserves pursuing and what doesn’t (and even that is a hard question for funding panels as it is). We don’t need to introduce non-experts and political hackery into the equation.

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