Saturday, December 11, 2010

NSF grants and "wasteful spending"

Hat tip to David Bacon for highlighting this.  Republican whip Eric Cantor has apparently decided that the best way to start cutting government spending is to have the general public search through NSF awards and highlight "wasteful" grants that are a poor use of taxpayer dollars.

Look, I like the idea of cutting government spending, but I just spent two days in Washington DC sitting around a table with a dozen other PhD scientists and engineers arguing about which 12% of a large group of NSF proposals were worth trying to fund.  I'm sure Cantor would brand me as an elitist for what I'm about to write, but there is NO WAY that the lay public is capable of making a reasoned critical judgment about the relative merits of 98% of NSF grants - they simply don't have the needed contextual information.  Bear in mind, too, that the DOD budget is ONE HUNDRED TIMES larger than the NSF budget.  Is NSF really the poster child of government waste?  Seriously?

7 comments:

Ψ*Ψ said...

I'm not complaining ALL that much about DOD spending--I owe 2-3 years of paychecks to ONR--but I'd be much happier if we got out of a few stupid and expensive wars and the DOD directed much, much more money to research. (Oh, and also benefits for veterans. Those are also pretty important.)

Anonymous said...

" Is NSF really the poster child of government waste?"

When you consider the rate of success for grant proposals, which currently hover around 10%, all the efforts that go in the doomed proposed are actually a huge waste of time and money. Granted, not the federal money, but a significant waste nevertheless.

Doug Natelson said...

Anon, agreed, and that's my point. The NSF proposal selection process is very rigorous and open, compared to just about any other federal agency. It's ridiculous to argue that NSF proposals have not been vetted. Now, honest people can disagree about how much federal support for basic research there should be, but Cantor is either deluded or fundamentally dishonest if he puts forward that unverified polling of uncredentialed people over the internet is the right way to identify unworthy science and engineering proposals.

Zach said...

Cantor is a politician, Doug. And it gets the base fired up to hear about wasteful spending on bear DNA research etc. Stupid? Yes. Effective? Also, sadly, yes. This is why I'm not nearly as surprised as some (http://www.slate.com/id/2277104/?from=rss) that only 6% of scientists are Republicans, and I'm not even sure why that would be considered a problem.

Jonah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonah said...

last link was a mistake. wanted to mention this one: http://scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=476

Government Grants said...

The NSF proposal selection process is very rigorous and open, compared to just about any other federal agency. It's ridiculous to argue that NSF proposals have not been vetted.