If this isn't war, then now peace concerns me

Earlier this week, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, penned an op-ed for Politico titled, “No, the GOP Is Not at War With Science.” It is an eye-catching title for a science policy advocate like myself who is looking to read the tea leaves on what this new Congress will be like for the scientific community. I’ve met with the offices of both Paul and Smith to discuss issues like science funding and Congressional support for research and have found their staffs genuinely interested and supportive of the scientific enterprise. We certainly may differ on, say, the level of funding for research or policies regarding the funding of grants, but generally speaking, I’ve found their offices to be open to discussions. That said, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck …

First, let’s address the thesis of the argument. The op-ed follows a long established narrative where politicians cherry pick funded research grants whose titles sound silly or frivolous and then paint the agency’s entire research portfolio with their now justified skeptical brush. This is not a new way to frame the argument, and it remains a flawed way to discuss science funding.  (In fact, we addressed this last year in response to Sen. Coburn’s “Wastebook.”)

The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health rely on the peer-review process for an overwhelming majority of the science they fund. That means that knowledgeable, experienced scientists in the field review grant applications and score them based on scientific merit. Only those having received the highest scores are funded. In this space, I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of the cherry picked grants selected for the op-ed. The funding agencies themselves can do a better job than I in explaining their value. But I will point out that neither Paul nor Smith have a particularly successful track record in citing valuable research or the proper use of taxpayer dollars:

  • Late last year during the height of the Ebola fears, Paul was highly critical of grants from the NIH for an “origami condom,” an area of scientific research whose title makes the average person blush and was, in Paul’s mind, a perfect example of frivolous spending. The condom in question (called an origami condom because the company developing it is named ORAGAMI) is reported to be safer, more effective and better able to slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. In other words, potentially lifesaving. So promising is the origami condom that it is partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a leading innovation in promoting sexual health.
  • Smith, on the other hand, has a different opinion on what funding is wasteful and what is not. To Smith, whose op-ed cites $3.9 million in wasteful grants at the NSF, the $400 billion F-35 joint strike fighter program is money well spent. In fact, in 2008 Rep. Smith proudly boasted his ability to include $1.6 million to build a component of the fighter in his district, and in 2011 Rep. Smith was a one of the first members of the Congressional Joint Strike Fighter Caucus. The joint strike fighter is seven years late and $163 billion over budget. (Note:  I’m not an expert on weapons programs, so this is not a criticism of the F-35 but rather evidence that scrutiny of all federal spending should be done on both defense and non-defense spending.)

The criticisms of Paul and Smith is a lot harder to take when juxtaposed against positions and comments made by the lawmakers in the past.

Paul and Smith say, “the United States must ensure that our investments are funding not just any science but the best science.” Yet they fail to explain to the reader exactly how they define “the best science.” That is a glaring omission in the argument. Later in the piece, references are made to science that is in the “national interest,” so I’ll assume that’s what they mean, but even that is quite vague. The amazing thing about scientific research and discovery is that you often are not sure what you’re going to find as you dig deeper into the research, and researchers have quite a hard time knowing whether the science they are involved in is, in fact, in the national interest.

Here is the gaping hole in the argument about science and the national need. Great achievement has no road map. In medicine, both the x-ray and penicillin were discovered more as a result of happenstance, not with a practical objective in mind. Americans, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, sure don’t seem to mind that investment. When the electron was discovered in 1892 it had absolutely no value to the nation at all; however many would argue the industry of electronics sure has served the national interest well. (If that argument sounds familiar, it was made in Season 3 of “The West Wing.”) The point is that when it comes to science and outcomes, the enterprise is built on questions and not answers, and we must allow researchers to follow where their findings take them and not be fearful their findings will take them to a place that Congress doesn’t want to fund.

But there is another issue about the supposed lack of a war on science within the GOP. As Republicans take control of the Senate, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who has said that he does not believe in climate change, was named the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. In fact, Sen. Inhofe believes this so strongly that in 2012 he wrote a book titled “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.” The book fancies itself as a piece of research, with 408 citations proving Sen. Inhofe’s point. Sadly, only five of those (or roughly 1% of the citations) are from scientific publications. The man responsible in the Senate for establishing environmental policy does not believe in a major environmental issue backed by substantial scientific evidence and supported by over 97 percent of climate scientists. There was no chorus of Republican’s calling on Sen. Inhofe to back down or correct his stance, and he was voted unanimously to chair the committee. How is that not in direct conflict with the argument that the GOP is not at war with science?

If this is life with a GOP not at war with science, I am fearful for the days when the battle begins.

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