In a report released Dec. 9, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., identify 100 projects funded by the stimulus package that they claim are wasteful government spending. Among these projects are 14 research grants funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
McCain and Coburn’s report singles out 10 studies from the NSF. Specifically, the report criticizes the use of stimulus funds to study the learning patterns of honey bees and to support educational programs that expose undergraduates to rainforest research.
The report also identifies four NIH grants as stimulus waste. Two study the sexual habits of young people, while two others analyze the effects of drugs and alcohol on mice.
McCain and Coburn are participating in the disturbing practice of criticizing controversial or “silly” research for political gain. Recently, U.S. Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, attacked particular NIH studies related to HIV, drugs and gun violence. Earlier this year, Coburn introduced an amendment to the NSF appropriation bill that would have removed funding for political science research.
It is often easy to criticize basic science research because it seems esoteric, controversial or just plain “silly.” Who cares how honeybees learn? What could possibly be the benefit of understanding the sexual habits of college students?
Each of grants detailed in the report were funded only after a rigorous review process. The federal government relies on the peer-review process to identify and fund the best scientific research.
Composed of field experts, peer-review panels recognize the value of research when untrained observers cannot. For example, as honeybees disappear from colony collapse disorder, our crops are at risk of having no bees to pollinate them. Understanding their learning may help mediate the effects of honeybee declines. Would McCain and Coburn have recognized the incredible potential of Alexander Fleming’s mold research?
It’s easy to take potshots at “silly” science for political gain. But scientific breakthroughs require creativity that runs counter to our well-established preconceptions. It’s time we freed scientists from playground-style ridicule and allowed them to innovate.