I've been a science nerd almost all my life. In graduate school, I was the co-discoverer of a bacterial enzyme essential to DNA replication and of a key enzyme in the influenza virus. I have written more than a thousand articles concerned with science and science policy. I'm convinced that America's prosperity is based on post-WWII preeminence in science and technology, much of it financed by federal funding.
You might think, then, that I'd be thrilled to learn that the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives wants to more than double the budget of the National Science Foundation over the next five years. That's a hike of $8.5 billion to $18.3 billion. The Senate is working on a companion bill. Unfortunately, at least as currently conceived by the Senate, this legislation will maintain NSF's "unity of structure" and protect NSF's existing programs. There's the rub.
Research is the lifeblood of technological innovation, which, in turn, drives economic growth and keeps America prosperous. Government-funded scientific research runs the gamut from studies of basic physical and biological processes to the development of applications to meet immediate needs. Basic science, which elucidates the fundamental processes in fields such as aging, cancer biology, immunology, and virology, is also worthy of federal research funding. However, the definition of what constitutes "science" has gradually expanded to include sociology, economics, and "alternative medicine." Much of the spending on these disciplines by the nation's two major funders of non-military research, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, shortchange taxpayers. Considering their collective budgets amount to more than $50 billion, this is no small concern.
The NSF, whose mission is to ensure U.S. leadership in areas of science and technology that are essential to economic growth and national security, frequently funds politically correct but low-value research projects. This trend is likely to accelerate during the Biden administration.
I once suffered through a presentation about an NSF-funded study of the ethics of nanotechnology research (a technology that deals with dimensions on the scale of less than 100 nanometers, the goal of which is to control individual atoms and molecules). The investigator conducted interviews with nanotechnology researchers in their offices, and part of her "research methodology" involved recording what kind of screen savers were on their computers. In a masterpiece of gobbledygook, the study concluded: "Narrative is an indispensable device for formulation of theory about scientists [sic] perspectives regarding the moral and social implications of nanotechnology," and "alternative pedagogies are necessary to fully explore and develop a working ethical framework for analysis of nanotechnology." Taxpayers funded this with a grant of $433,217.
Sadly, that "study" is not an isolated example.
A few more doozies include the veiling-fashion industry in Turkey, Viking textiles in Iceland, the "social impacts" of tourism in the northern tip of Norway, and whether hunger causes couples to fight (using the number of pins stuck in voodoo dolls as a measure of aggressive feelings). The late Sen. (and physician) Tom Coburn released a landmark report, "NSF Under the Microscope," which identified more projects that will make most shake their heads. They include studies of how to ride a bike, when dogs became man's best friend, whether political views are genetically predetermined, whether parents choose trendy baby names, and why the same teams always seem to dominate the NCAA basketball playoffs.
Research funding in the geosciences, including climate change, is certainly legitimate, but not when it goes to ludicrous boondoggles such as a climate-change musical, "The Great Immensity," that cost NSF $697,177.
The primary culprit is the NSF's Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. Underlying its ability to dispense grants is the wrongheaded notion that social-science projects are as important as research to identify early markers for Alzheimer's disease or pancreatic cancer — or the biology and epidemiology of coronaviruses.
Society doesn't owe a living to social scientists who perform shoddy, irrelevant, or worthless research, but Congress does owe taxpayers scrupulous oversight of how our money is spent.
Dr. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a research associate at the National Institutes of Health and the founding director of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Biotechnology. Links to his articles are at henrymillermd.org.