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The Black Hole

"Questionable" Projects: Does the public have the answer?

BY BETH | JAN 13 2011
The other day, this article from Live Science was brought to our attention:
“Republicans Call for Public Scrutiny of NSF grants”

From the article:

Republican Majority Leader-Elect Eric Cantor (R-VA) is asking citizens to choose their own cuts to federal spending — and he’s started with the National Science Foundation.

On his website, Cantor is urging citizens to search the NSF for “questionable projects” by searching for terms like “success, culture, media, games, social norms, lawyers, museum, lesiure, stimulus.” (No word on why these particular terms were chosen.) Then, citizens are urged to submit the grant number and comment on why the grants are wasteful. Cantor’s office says it will publish a report on the grants identified.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard people complain about the research that gets funded by national granting agencies. It seems like every year there is a news story where someone goes through a list of the titles of grants that have been funded, takes them completely out of context of the broader implications of the work and cries, “This research is a waste of taxpayers’ money!”

On his website (see here for a cached version, as his website has since been updated), Cantor gives a couple of examples of what he considers to be “questionable projects,” such as a research funded by the National Science Foundation to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players.  He talks about the average amount of tax that an American family pays and then asks, “Should 75 families work all year to support soccer research?”  But, as the Live Science article points out:

That research isn’t just about soccer.
LiveScience did some digging and found that the money went to Northwestern University engineering professor Luis Amaral, who has created models to rank soccer player success. But the work is more broadly applicable to understanding the contributions of team members in any organization, including workplaces, the researchers wrote in a paper published in June in the open-access journal PLoS One. Amaral also researches other complex systems like the stock market and ecosystems, as well as the impact of scientific research and the performance of individual scientists and institutions.

As public monies fund much research, it is certainly reasonable that the public is informed and have some say in where monies are directed. But I don’t think that asking the public to identify “questionable” projects in order to lobby against them as “wastes of money” is an effective way to do that.  Grants go through a rigorous review process by experts in the field, who ask these very questions about allocation of resources and it seems unfair to assume the potential implications and value of a given research topic can be ascertained by simply reading the title and lay summary.  Perhaps, instead of condemning research to the chopping block without further information, the public should first lobby to have the peer reviews of research projects made public in order to assess the potential merits of such projects.

The compounding factor on this is that there certainly isn’t a boatload of grant money floating around (see recent posts at Researcher Forum
and Piece of Mind ), and it would be unfair to suggest that councils are just handing out money to anyone with a half-baked research plan.  (In fact, in Canada,
funding rates are so low that projects that get rated “excellent” are often not funded due to insufficient money being available).

Yes, the money is public money,  but let’s approach the questions in a reasonable and informed manner rather than just asking people to make knee jerk reactions.

Hat tip to Sonja who brought this to our attention and to Dave for his suggested revisions to a draft of this posting!

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