Politics, Funding, and Bans: Don't Ask the Question / by James Wade

  Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky by  Benjamin West

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky by Benjamin West

Last week, congress voted mostly along party lines to amend the Defense Departments's budget, prohibiting the Pentagon from further investigating the effects of climate change or enacting any initiatives in response to the climate disturbances based on the reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the National Climate Assessment. Healthy skepticism is an integral component to successful research, but in this instance, congress has overreached for political gains. The only chance for Republicans to ever "win" the climate debate is to allow further climate research to better understand the precise direction and underlying causes of any changes. The science will not change because of a politics. Of course, there are biases researchers inject into their investigations, but the goal of the scientific community is to sail beyond such individual predispositions and to arrive at the truth.

Congress carries unique powers in directing the focus of research efforts across the United States. Most recently, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology threatens to cut major research efforts in the social sciences and humanities. The committee chairman - Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) - has spearheaded a new appropriations bill that slashes spending on research the committee deems inappropriate for taxpayer dollars. In addition to the spending reductions (note: spending on so-called hard sciences will increase slightly), Smith's bill also proposes new criteria for the the National Science Foundation (NSF) to use when allocating research funds. Currently, NSF focuses on two criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. The new metrics (see Sec. 106(B) for details) would urge the agency to focus on aspects such as economic competitiveness, development of a STEM workforce, and national security. These are certainly lofty goals, but many scientists worry that such guidelines would leave out much of the basic research that innovation in the sciences has relied upon (see NSF's Discoveries page for examples). 

The movement to change funding distributions for research at the federal level caught wind when Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) voiced major opposition over a paper by Stanton Glantz, which traced the close involvement of Big Tobacco in the origins of the Tea Party. Harris, joined by Smith and Rep. Tom Coburn (R-OK) - himself a habitual critic of "wasteful" federal research spending - decided to take on these funding agencies to prevent what they view as wasteful research spending. In essence, Tea Party politicians went after research about the Tea Party they didn't like. Of course, NSF along with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) must be good stewards of their resources, but I find it frustrating that these and other congressmen choose to focus on a relatively small amount of US spending (combined NSF and NIH spending comprise less than 7% of US military spending) for ostensibly political motivations. What's more, the opposition primarily points to projects the representatives disagree with, rather than identifying fraud and abuse that plagues so much of our other government spending (especially defense spending). Again, the justification for going after research funding agencies appears to emerge more from an attempt to gain political brownie points than to best serve the American people.

In my current capacity as a researcher in training, my own funding and career path will be heavily influenced by the resources available for federal funding agencies. I certainly have some meat in the game, and I admit my bias is strong. To be clear, I don't mean for this to be an attack on the Tea Party or on the political right. My objection is to allowing political partisanship to dictate the research questions scientists and engineers can pursue. Science must be the guiding light. Legislators are within their right to enact laws and regulations to ensure that research remains within the moral imperatives of our country. Such imperatives must extend beyond party lines, and I judge that in these instances, the congressmen have gone too far.

Science as a pursuit of knowledge is apolitical and amoral in its purest form. Data acquisition and rigorous testing of hypotheses drive research from one locale to the next. The researcher ensures the work remains within ethical and fiduciary bounds, but progress more commonly emerges out of diligent record keeping than an individual's ingenious guidance. Arbitrary limitations on the direction research may turn serve to delay what is likely inevitable. Knowledge cannot be suppressed in an age of unprecedented global prosperity and connectivity.

We must remember: refusing to ask the question does not change the answer. The ones hurt by the results of scientific inquiry are the ignorant and the selfish.