I've been a science nerd all my adult life. As an undergraduate, I did research in a couple of university labs, and in grad school 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 technology and their regulation. 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'd think, therefore, 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 (NSF) over the next five years, from $8.5 billion to $18.3 billion, and that the Senate is working on a companion bill. That is good news—or it would be, if we could be sure that increasing NSF's budget wouldn't maintain, or even expand, some of the dubious, wasteful pursuits funded by that government behemoth. However, at least as currently conceived by the Senate, the legislation will explicitly maintain NSF's "unity of structure" and protect NSF's existing programs.
And there's the rub.
NSF FUNDS PROJECTS UNSUITABLE FOR THE PRIVATE SECTOR
Research is the lifeblood of technological innovation, which, in turn, drives economic growth and keeps America prosperous and competitive. Government-funded scientific research runs the gamut from studies of fundamental physical and biological processes to the development of applications to meet immediate national needs. Much of it focuses on studies that would not be done by the private sector, either because it's "pre-commercial" or because, for other reasons, the results can't be readily translated into revenue.
A good example of important medical research that the private sector is unlikely to perform on its own initiative was the massive federally funded ISCHEMIA ("International Study of Comparative Health Effectiveness With Medical and Invasive Approaches") trial of patients with coronary artery disease and published in 2020. The researchers found that invasive procedures to unclog blocked arteries, such as the insertion of a stent (a tiny mesh tube that props open a blood vessel after artery-clearing angioplasty), offered no greater benefit than medicines alone in people without chest pain. The stents were also no better in a composite of major heart-disease outcomes, including cardiac death, heart attacks, heart-related hospitalizations, and resuscitation after cardiac arrest. Thus, we learned that an invasive procedure, with its attendant costs and potential side effects, was not warranted.
The ISCHEMIA study, which enrolled more than 5,000 patients in 320 medical centers and cost about $100 million, provides an important guide to cost-effective treatment of coronary artery disease, improving and saving lives, and reducing future healthcare costs. There was, however, no financial incentive for any private sector entity to undertake it.
Investigations of the fundamental processes in scientific fields such as aging, cancer biology, immunology, and virology—like how cancers metastasize or how influenza virus and coronaviruses mutate and cause pandemics—are also worthy of federal research funding. However, the definition of what constitutes "science" has gradually expanded over the years to include sociology, economics, and woo-woo "alternative medicine." As a result, a large chunk 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 (whose budgets for this fiscal year total more than $50 billion), shortchanges taxpayers.
HAS THE NSF LOST ITS WAY?
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, at least if we were to judge from a lengthy, just-published interview with the new NSF director, Sethuraman Panchanathan, in the current issue of Issues in Science and Technology.
Dr. Panchanathan can certainly talk the talk. For example, he observes that the mission statement of NSF includes three goals: to "promote the progress of science; advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and secure the national defense." From that, he says, "you can understand the highly symbiotic relationship between fundamental advancement of science and engineering and advancements in technology and solutions that contribute to the advancement of society, national prosperity, and global competitiveness, all at the same time."
When I came to NSF [last summer], I wanted to start convening all these fantastic ideas around the umbrella of what I called resilience. How can NSF be much more proactive—and take a leadership role—around resilience to pandemics, resilience to natural hazards, resilience to economic disruptions, resilience to disruptions in education? How might we then configure ourselves around this resilience framework?
So far, so good. But then, we get the obligatory gesture to the Biden administration's preoccupation with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI): "Talent and ideas are democratized in the sense that they are everywhere. It is our responsibility to create ecosystems that bring out that talent and those ideas in full force." As long as research-funding decisions are made purely on the basis of scientific merit and promise, this poses no threat to America's scientific competitiveness, but what Dr. Panchanathan failed to say is also important. He made no mention of the often worthless, politically correct "research" that is liberally funded by the NSF, especially when it prioritizes DEI or political correctness over scientific merit and national needs.
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, a professor at the University of Virginia, 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. (Screen savers?) 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 "research" project 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). Research funding for the geosciences, including studies about climate change, is certainly legitimate, but not when it goes to ludicrous boondoggles such as a climate-change musical, "The Great Immensity," which cost NSF $697,177.
In 2011, the late Senator and physician Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a landmark report, "NSF Under the Microscope," which identified even more projects that will make most Americans—scientists and nonscientists alike—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; trendy baby names; the best time to buy a ticket to a sold-out sporting event; and why the same teams always seem to dominate the NCAA basketball playoffs. "The good news for taxpayers is there is no question NSF has contributed significantly to scientific discovery. The bad news is a significant percentage of your money is going to what most Americans will consider fraud, waste, and abuse, and there are many areas where NSF could contribute far more with better management and smarter targeting of resources," Coburn reported.
'WHEN THE INMATES RUN THE ASYLUM'
The primary culprit is the NSF's Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE).
According to their website, SBE-funded projects focus on "human behavior and social organizations and how social, economic, political, cultural, and environmental forces affect the lives of people from birth to old age and how people, in turn, shape those forces."
Underlying the SBE's ability to dispense grants is the wrongheaded notion that politically correct 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. This is what happens when, as a former senior NSF official expressed to me, "the inmates run the asylum."
'Happy Talk' from the NSF director doesn't hide the blemishes. Even with big boosts in the budgets at NIH and NSF, federal research funding remains a zero-sum game. The seven hundred grand spent on the climate-change musical means that some other, worthier research proposal doesn't get funded. Dr. Panchanathan should acknowledge publicly that his agency has problems—problems that he intends to fix.
Society doesn't owe a living to social scientists who perform shoddy, irrelevant, or worthless research, and if the NSF director doesn't raise his agency's standards, Congress—which owes us taxpayers scrupulous oversight of how our money is spent—must do it.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a research associate at the NIH and the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. You can find him online or on Twitter at @henryimiller, and read more of his writing at henrymillermd.org.