Fiscal responsibility is ‘anti-science’ now

The media framing for stories about fiscal responsibility now involves portraying Republicans as “anti-science” when they object to handing out fat research grants for stupid projects.  For example, Politico’s big article on the subject is entitled, “Next Battle In the War on Science.”  Got that?  Shutting down wasteful, and sometimes downright harmful, monkey-gambling studies and robot-squirrel construction projects is now a “war on science.”  You don’t want to spend a million bucks studying how ideas spread across Twitter, producing a study that might prove useful for anti-free-speech activists?  Why do you hate science, wingnut?

The war over science is heating up on Capitol Hill.

GOP House members have had little success reining in research agencies so far, but, emboldened by their growing majorities, they’re hoping for better luck next year. They plan to push proposals to cut funding for global warming and social science research, put strict new rules on the National Science Foundation’s grant-making process and overhaul how science informs policy making at the EPA.

At the same time, however, researchers and their advocates in the Democratic caucus are taking increasingly aggressive stances of their own: Rather than answer GOP objections one by one, or brush them off, they’re making a larger issue of what they see as heavy-handed interference based on ideology rather than methodology.

Indeed, some Republicans have already accused NSF of wasting millions on useless projects — even one that could be used to censor free speech, they say. House aides have been sent to NSF’s headquarters to comb documents for signs of bad decision making. And the Ebola epidemic unleashed a wave of criticism — including a demand from Sen. Rand Paul for an explanation why the National Institutes of Health was spending money developing an “origami condom” instead of an Ebola vaccine.

Opponents in the scientific world and their political allies believe that, at its heart, the GOP assault isn’t about bringing greater accountability to the EPA or NSF, but rather a larger lack of trust in science that could soon spur efforts to micromanage NIH, the Department of Defense and other agencies that, all told, spend tens of billions on scientific research every year.

Yes, God forbid We the People should start “micro-managing” the agencies that piddle away billions of our dollars every year.  “Science” means the people who spend our money like water, borrowing a few dimes on every dollar spent, get to micro-manage us, not the other way around.

Much of this so-called “War On Science” boils down to the usual bureaucratic turf battle between tax-eaters and the few people in Washington who still feel a sense of vestigial responsibility to tax-payers.  Certainly some research grants are money well spent, while others are reasonable gambles that don’t pay off.  But a lot of this stuff is ridiculous, and it’s long past time for the government to stop splurging on luxuries while the rest of us are struggling to pay for necessities.  There will always be some tough calls to make about which projects deserve funding, but the current system leans too far towards madcap unrestrained spending.  For example, here’s where things stand between NSF director France Cordova and House Space, Science, and Technology Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX):

Smith had been requesting information on specific NSF grants for months that the agency has refused to hand over in full, and he wrote the director to follow up as soon as she took over NSF.

Córdova is walking a thin line to try to please Congress and protect researchers and grant reviewers. She and Smith have come to an unusual arrangement: Science committee staff can view the documents by appointment at NSF’s headquarters in Virginia. Some information, such as names of people who review grant applications, is redacted and they can’t take any paperwork with them. Smith maintains that this agreement shouldn’t be permanent and said he hopes the NSF will make it easier to his staff to access the information in the future.

Three cheers for this new era of heavily redacted “transparency!”

It was profoundly unwise for the Obama Administration to try using the Ebola crisis as an opportunity to complain about under-funding.  People are sick unto death of hearing about how every branch of this incompetent mega-government is “underfunded,” while the knees of our economy buckle under the strain of paying for it all.  We’re supposed to accept two-something percent GDP growth as the New Normal for economic health, but that’s not even half what it would take to “recover” from the Great Recession and an only modestly improved “recovery” that’s been grinding along for years… and I’ll wager it’s not half what we could do, if we whipped the government down to size and got it off our backs.  

That’s going to take a lot more than trimming the fat from research budgets, but trimming the fat isn’t a bad start.  I’ve heard more than enough of the counter-argument that it’s pointless to worry about a few hundred million dollars wasted here and there, while countless billions are shoveled into the furnaces of Washington.  Uncle Sam’s never going to lose any weight unless we take his candy stash away, in addition to designing a strict diet and exercise plan.  Fiscal responsibility should become a habit of mind everywhere in the government, most definitely including its grants for science and the arts.  

We’re never going to get anywhere if the war on waste is misrepresented as a “war on science,” “war on the poor,” “war on the arts,” etc.  Everyone who feeds from the Treasury can give you a hundred reasons why he needs every dollar he’s getting, and more.  So can every person working their buns off to earn a living, or make private-sector investments turn a profit.


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