A new proposal nestled comfortably inside a bill set forth by the Republican-led House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology calls for all National Science Foundation grants awarded to be justified by their benefits to national interest. The bill, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2013, would require the NSF’s program director to publish a justification for all grants on the NSF website, explaining how the proposed study will contribute to a series of six goals: economic competitiveness, health and welfare, scientific literacy, partnerships between academia and industry, promotion of scientific progress, and national defense.
According to Nature, the current bill is reminiscent of a previous draft which circulated back in April from committee chairman Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas (of SOPA fame). Smith’s original proposal lacked a broad enough definition of “national interest” though, and so the current bill sports those six new goals which are meant to run the gamut of what science can and should be.
I’m sure this seemed like a good idea when it first came up. I mean, we only give money to those projects that are most likely to benefit us? How could that be a bad thing? Well pretty damn easily actually. It’s clear this proposal was drafted by people who have little understanding of how science has progressed and how research is integrated into new technology and industry.
For example, the Doll-Hill study conducted in England in the early 1950s found a connection between smoking and lung cancer largely by accident. The study, which was one of the more influential in igniting both public and scientific interest in the now well-established link between tobacco and cancer, was a broad survey that covered a wide variety of possible causes. Richard Doll, one of the principal investigators who lends his name to the historic study, actually expected the study to demonstrate a connection between road tar exposure and lung cancer, but the correlation between the disease and a history of smoking was so strong it quickly became the focus of the study. About halfway through the study, Doll gave up smoking, what with his discovering it caused cancer and all. I pulled this anecdote from Siddhartha Mukherjee’s excellent book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in the disease’s history, or seeing how terrifyingly incidental a lot of the early progress was in cancer science.
Let’s not forget that penicillin was also an accidental discovery, or Louis Pasteur’s stumbling across the basis for modern vaccination. This story’s kind of fun, so here: Pasteur, having gone on vacation, had charged his assistant with infecting chickens with the bacteria responsible for chicken cholera, Pasteurella multocida. Instead, his assistant also left for vacation, and so the cultures spoiled. Upon return, Pasteur and his assistant found that their cultures were no longer lethal, only causing a mild illness. These surviving chickens were also now immune to healthy bacterial infection, that is, immune to cholera. This serendipitous series of events laid the foundations for modern vaccines (though inoculation runs back farther in history and further east to the Ottomans, it was in 19th century France that a concerted effort began towards studying the phenomenon).
Now these are kind of out-of-the ordinary examples. Not every scientist is going to discover the unforeseen link between smoking and lung cancer or accidentally invent vaccines. But when you limit exploratory research like this, to what is only directly profitable in the immediate future, you limit what science will find. Most any researcher will tell you, this is a dumb idea. It is a profoundly dumb idea, which ignores how research functions and will create more work for both struggling researchers and the NSF itself. There is no way to predict whether or not a given project will yield extraordinary or even ordinary benefits to society. With budgets being widely cut, jobs disappearing, and projects dwindling in size, this doesn’t seem the opportune time to start cutting down on scope and ambition as well. I’m sure this will be touted as a victory for fiscal responsibility over frivolous scientific spending, but it’s not. It is a loss for curiosity and passion to mediocre politics and half-assed thinking.
(It should also be noted that a similar requirement to explain the significance and goal of research already exists in the proposal process for all NSF grants, so this is an extra-pointless piece of legislation which will only slow progress and frustrate the scientific community. But whatever.)