There is a bill circulating in the House of Representatives, sponsored by Lamar Smith of Texas, that aims to give Congress the power of oversight over government grants for scientific research. Grants from the National Science Foundation are given out to basic research projects based on their scientific merit, as determined by a system of peer review. Lamar Smith’s legislature hopes to “improve” science funding (= reduce government spending) with this proposal:
CERTIFICATION.—Prior to making an award of
any contract or grant funding for a scientific research project, the Director of the National Science Foundation shall publish a statement on the public website of the Foundation that certifies that the research project—
Perhaps the effort is genuine and Smith wants to boost scientific research and output in the U.S. Perhaps it is out of a naive micro-manager tendency that he’s proposing to overtake the peer review process (which is definitely far from perfect), just as he did with the SOPA (“Stop Online Piracy Act”) bill. Or maybe the underlying motivation is more sinister.
Regardless, the point of basic science is that it does not promise to bring about any specific advances or cures for social or medical ailments. Rather, basic science advances society by a more stochastic process – two steps forward, one step back. Many scientific projects either don’t work out at all or the results are negative or un-interpretable; but all information produced through the scientific process is useful. If my experiment produces confusing results, the conclusion shouldn’t be that I wasted the government’s money; on the contrary, that money (and time!) are saved for the next person who wants to test a similar hypothesis – that person doesn’t have to duplicate my failed effort and can design a better (or different) experiment.
The National Science Foundation is distinguished primarily from the National Institutes of Health in that the latter aims to improve human health through science, while the NSF simply aims to fund scientific projects in order to produce knowledge. (By the way, the NSF’s budget is ~$7 billion compared to the NIH’s $32 billion). With the tight budgets, the funding agencies are already forced to choose only the most competitive and promising proposals. The agencies must be accountable, but holding them at gunpoint won’t produce any innovation.