Lamar Smith’s War on the National Science Foundation


You remember Rep. Lamar Smith (R, Texas). He’s the Chair of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. You know, the one who doesn’t believe in anthropogenic climate change, or evolution, or the scientific method. The guy who back in 2012 introduced a bill under which his Committee would evaluate the quality of scientific and technological research sponsored by the United States. Rep. Smith is so arrogant he thinks he is qualified to serve as gatekeeper for American scientific research.

He’s at it again. This time he is attacking the National Science Foundation, seeking support for his ongoing campaign to demonstrate how the $7 billion research agency is “wasting” taxpayer dollars on frivolous or low-priority projects, particularly in the social sciences. Rep. Smith thinks he’s smarter than anyone else and that he and his fellow Congressional idiots are better qualified than scientists to decide what should be funded and what should not.

As we speak. Rep. Smith and his staffers are pawing through National Science Foundation grant applications, looking for items Rep. Smith can use to support his ongoing campaign to demonstrate how the $7 billion research agency is “wasting” taxpayer dollars on frivolous or low-priority projects. Rep. Smith is especially upset that the NSF funds research in the social sciences. The fight between Rep. Smith and the Director of the NSF is particularly ugly.

But it is the sheer arrogance and ignorance of Rep. Smith that most appalls WC. Rep. Smith thinks he is smart enough to know what pure research will lead to value, and what won’t. It’s difficult for scientists who are experts in their fields to make a guess; a cretin like Rep. Lamar Smith is utterly clueless.

Let’s look at a few examples, borrowed from the Golden Goose Awards:

Researchers Tiffany Field, Gary Evoniuk, Cynthia Kuhn, and Saul Schanberg used a National Institutes of Health grant to research the effects of tactile stimulation in infants rats. It’s exactly the kind of pure research clods like Rep. Smith love to ridicule: masaging baby rats. Yet that research led directly to revised treatment of premature babies in neonatal intensive care units. A recent analysis estimates that these savings amount to about $10,000 per infant, resulting in a nationwide annual health care savings of $4.7 billion. Infant massage therapy is now used by close to 40 percent of NICU’s nationwide, a number that is steadily increasing. All that from research on massaging baby rats.

Preston McAfee, Paul Milgrom, and Robert Wilson used federal grant monies to research game theory and auction design. They developed an auction process called a simultaneous multiple round (SMR) auction, also known as a simultaneous ascending-bid auction. While it sounds abstruse and absurd, the principles they developed were used the Federal Communications Commission to auction radio spectrum bandwidth, netting the U.S. $60 billion and helping lay the foundation for cellular telephone service.

Larry Smarr was attempting to model black hole collisions, and needed more supercomputing power and a better interface to access those supercomputers. He obtained NSF funding for his research. The result was a program called Mosaic. This, the first Web browser, was ultimately commercialized as the popular browser Netscape Navigator, opening the World Wide Web to a mainstream audience and beginning the public Internet revolution.

WC could go on like this for a long, long time. If you’re curious, visit the Golden Goose Awards web site, which describes a tiny fraction of the astonishing results of NSF research, research into subjects Rep. Lamar Smith thinks are silly or wasteful. That’s the process, that’s the highly successful model that Rep. Smith wants to abolish. The thing about the NSF model for evaluating the 49,000 grant proposals it receives each year is that it works. NSF research has an amazing track record of federally-funded science that has led directly to innovation across all of the sciences.

The first rule a smart person learns is that you don’t fix what isn’t broken.

But Rep. Lamar Smith is not a smart person.

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One thought on “Lamar Smith’s War on the National Science Foundation

  1. The media are somewhat complicit in this because they do not provide essential context. There was a report a day or two ago on a mainstream national news program that featured Sen. Tom Coburn, R.-OK. He has published his annual Wastebook, I believe it’s called, that calls attention to programs that he regards as wasteful govt spending. They were like these items that you mentioned. It was difficult to ascertain from the news report whether the seemingly silly science was or was not helpful to some larger breakthrough in medicine or science. Coburn ought to know better because he’s a medical doctor, a gynecologist, I believe. There are others in the Congress who are doctors or credentialed science professionals who ought to know and understand the difference betw basic science and the larger breakthroughs that are enabled by basic science. The basic science projects can be made to look rather silly if one provides little or no context for they can seem wasteful and pointless, as your posting makes clear.
    Paul Eaglin

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