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For want of a nail…

Listserves drive me crazy, even when I have all the posts condensed to a daily digest form.  However, they occasionally bring me important information about what my peers are working on, job, conference, or workshop opportunities, new articles, relevant news, and networking possibilities.  Today I received notice about yet another looming battle in ongoing war against science – in this case, it would be more accurate to say social science –  in the United States.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, introduced HR 4186 on 10 March 2014 – they’re calling it the FIRST Act.  It’s a budget bill that provides funding to the National Science Foundation so scientists can do basic research, discover, invent, and teach the next generation of scientists along the way. Rep. Smith states,

To remain globally competitive, we need to make sure our priorities are funded and that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. The FIRST Act keeps America first in areas of science and research that are crucial to economic growth. Our bill focuses taxpayer investments for basic research in critical areas such as biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering and mathematics. Advances in these fields drive innovation, create jobs and keep our economy strong.”

Don’t get me wrong, we should scrutinize how taxpayer dollars are spent so that monies are spent wisely.  But science is more than STEM, and social science is just as crucial to economic growth and the competitiveness of our nation as any of the biophysical sciences, mathematics, or engineering.  New inventions and technologies are great, but real people with different sorts of values, ethics, risk perceptions, vulnerabilities, economic status, genders, ages, ethnicities, etc. have to actually use them, and maybe even understand what they’re for and why they’re important.

HR 4186 targets the Directorate for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) at NSF in particular by cutting it’s funding budget 42%.  As highlighted in Nature News Blog, “it seeks to cap SBE funding at $150 million per year in 2014 and 2015, well below the directorate’s actual 2014 budget of $257 million.”  This translates into smaller pots of money available for researchers – both established researchers as well as young scientists applying for funds to conduct their dissertation field work.

As for the proposal peer-review process, Rep. Smith states,The FIRST Act does not change NSF’s peer review process. But it does expand accountability and requires transparency so that only high quality research receives taxpayer funds. Finally, the FIRST Act reauthorizes and streamlines federal investments at the NSF and NIST by funding research and development to address national needs.”  Okay, but how does that translate into reality?  Basically, the SBE would need to justify that every awarded grant is in one of 6 national interest areas: economic competitiveness, health and welfare, scientific literacy, partnerships between academia and industry, promotion of scientific progress and national defense (Nature News, 2014).  Which means that researchers need to provide this in their proposals.  Does that mean we get more than ~15 pages now to explain everything?  Or do we have to cut out some of the hard, important stuff on theoretical underpinnings and methods to make room?   I like that Rep. Smith specifically cites the waste of $340,000 for early human-set fires in New Zealand.  It’s clear that he doesn’t see any connections between fire, changing climate patterns, and what we could learn from history or other cultures.  Again, this sort of change will make it tougher for many social scientists to get funding for research.

Lastly, grant recipients are capped at 5 years and proposals to 5 citations regardless of discipline.   Long-term research and complex projects just got more difficult.  That includes longitudinal studies with different populations and research on human-environment interactions.  And only 5 citations?  Just to repeat, FIVE citations.  WHAT??????  Are they crazy?  I guess that means we have to cut out all that boring, hard stuff on theoretical support for our ideas and methods on how we actually intend to carry out the research.  There’s more problems with the bill being introduced, but I need to cool off a bit.  How does this work in the interests of making sure taxpayer dollars are well spent?  Anything could be proposed.  <snark> I guess we’ve now seen the edge of the universe, no need to stand on the shoulders of giants to look any further. </snark>

Internet rumor has it that George Washington, our first president, once said, “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of science and literature.  Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”  As a scientist, and an anthropologist, I couldn’t agree more.

For Want Of A Nail. Scott Gustafson, 2010

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