Attacks on science and Coburn’s ignorance

I’m burning up about this one. Senator Coburn thinks he knows what science the federal government should be funding. We all know that money’s tight right now. And we all know that the Republicans have tried time and time again to attack science and, well let’s just say it, education and knowledge. And now they’re going after the very most basic research that drives innovation, technology and health in this country.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is charged “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” The research they fund ranges from basic biology that hasn’t (yet) been implicated in human health, to environmental and earth science, engineering and technology, and the humanities/social sciences. The level of funding from NSF is nowhere near what us biomedical scientists get from NIH, yet their funding is the foundation of many, hell I’d say the majority, of research programs in this country.

But Senator Coburn has a problem with them. I’ll be the first to admit, making sure that government agencies are running efficiently and honestly is a priority for all of us, especially in this economic climate. After reading through the report this morning however, Coburn’s manifesto appears to be no more than an ignorant attack on a select group of NSF-funded researchers. Coburn spends only a few pages outlining actual issues at NSF, most of which show his ignorance on the way federal funds are allocated, followed by caddy descriptions of NSF-funded programs deemed by him and his political attack squad as undeserving of federal funding. For an example of the type of research Coburn highlighted, see this post by an esteemed blogging colleague.

The projects funded by NSF have been reviewed by scores of leading researchers and deemed (uber-)acceptable for funding. In fact, many projects considered excellent choices for funding frequently fall below the funding cutoff, and are left in the cold despite their value to furthering our understanding of science. As a US Representative with no personal experience in basic research, no understanding of grant-writing, lab and project management, and no knowledge of the particular programs that he slanders, Coburn’s attack shows a complete lack of responsibility and decorum. Congress has every right to ensure federal agencies are functioning at top efficiency, but members of the legislature are ill-equipped to understand the complexities and importance of research conducted in these targeted programs. If he wanted to know more about this research, Coburn could have requested hearings with NSF personnel and leading researchers in these fields to learn more about why they are being pursued. Instead, the manner in which Coburn has chosen to embark on his purely political mission is underhanded and hateful.

Please call your Congressperson today and talk to them about the importance of research and the freedom of scientists to conduct their research without fear of political reprisal in this country.

See also posts from Prodigal , Namnezia, and Steve Silberman on this debacle.


12 thoughts on “Attacks on science and Coburn’s ignorance

  1. “Esteemed”?

    Stop it. You’re making me blush.

    Since I wrote my post, I’ve had a quick glance at the report. It has a few point in it that are not crazy. But when you look at the long list of “Questionable projects” that take up the bulk of the report, you know this is someone who is not interested in meaningful reform.

  2. “Esteemed”?

    Stop it. You’re making me blush.

    But I take pride in heaping embarrassing laud on my fellow bloggers 🙂

    I agree there are items in his report that are, at least on the surface, respectable points of contention, although at least some of his accounting references have already been vehemently questioned by NSF. But that the majority of the report was focused on dragging actual science through political mud destroyed its credibility. I’m not a fan of scientific McCarthyism. In fact, the idea that these types of attacks are being more commonplace scares the shit out of me.

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  7. Great article, although I think the best meat of it is toward the end:

    Mark Weiss, division director for behavioral and cognitive sciences at the National Science Foundation, acknowledged that in a large research project, some results may seem obvious when removed from their larger context.

    This point was also made by Namnezia, and it’s an incredibly important one that us scientists work hard to impart on the general public.

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