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Funny science sparks serious spat

Miles O'Brien reports on the towel-folding robot for "Innovation Nation."

The latest in a series of critical reports on the National Science Foundation takes aim at science that's seemingly silly but really isn't.

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., issued today's 73-page report, "The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope," after months of signals from GOP leaders that the agency's programs would be targeted.


Some of the report's criticisms are clearly justified and have been the subject of investigation for years. Examples include the scandal over staff members' porn-surfing, Jell-O-wrestling at an Antarctic research station and questions about mixing business travel with romance. The report also cites concerns about $1.7 billion in unspent funds that are lying in a budgetary limbo, as well as examples of mismanagement already identified by the agency's inspector general.

But the headline-grabbers are "questionable" research projects that are portrayed in an unflattering light. "Are these projects the best possible use of our tax dollars, particularly in our current fiscal crisis?" the report asks.

Here are a few examples:

  • A robot that was designed to fold towels and do other chores. The project at the University of California at Berkeley received a $1.5 million NSF grant.
  • Experiments at Indiana University aimed at finding out whether an analysis of Twitter updates could predict the mood on the stock market. The $25,000 grant was provided to Indiana University researchers under a program that was actually set up to respond to the Haiti earthquake. 
  • A Duke University study focusing on why the same teams tend to dominate March Madness basketball brackets, which received a $79,998 NSF grant.
  • A study of marine locomotion that involved putting shrimp on an underwater treadmill and comparing how sickness impaired their movement. That particular study was supported by a $559,681 award from NSF, and the research group at the College of Charleston's Grice Marine Laboratory received 12 grants totaling over $3 million during the past decade, Coburn reported. The scientists also received a lot of publicity, including a spot on NBC's TODAY show.

NBC's TODAY talks with biologists David Scholnick and Lou Burnett about their shrimp research.

It's easy to stir up some outrage or squeeze out a laugh over these types of science projects ... and they're the kinds of projects that we journalists like to write about, precisely because they seem so silly. That's why Coburn's report quotes so extensively from news articles about the research, rather than the findings themselves.

But in all these cases, there's a serious point behind the silliness.

The towel-folding robot, for example, is part of a project to see what it would take for robots to handle relatively unstructured tasks ranging from cooking to surgery. The Twitter prediction study is aimed at seeing whether social media can be factored into new types of prediction models (such as the long-running Iowa Electronic Markets). The "March Madness" study looks at whether the principles of evolutionary biology can be applied to hierarchies ranging from sports dynasties to academia and business. And the shrimp-on-a-treadmill study served as a way to gauge the health of marine organisms in a laboratory setting.

Some scientists said Coburn's report contained a distorted description of their research. "Good Lord! The summary of the funded research is very inaccurate," LiveScience's Stephanie Pappas quoted Texas A&M psychologist Gerianne Alexander as saying. 

Traditional target
Coburn's report is the latest example of a tradition going back at least to the 1970s, to the late Sen. William Proxmire and his "Golden Fleece Awards." Proxmire was a Democrat, but more recently it's been Republicans who have been taking shots at science spending. Remember Sen. John McCain's campaign against the Adler Planetarium's newfangled projector? The assault on fruit-fly research by his 2008 running mate, Sarah Palin? Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's attack on volcano monitoring?

"There's a long history of these reports coming out," Patrick Clemins, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told me today. Usually, the reports prey on studies that have a "poorly picked title" or focus on a research area that seems frivolous at first blush.

The National Science Foundation's grant selection process isn't perfect, and there's a chance that some clunkers may end up getting funded. But Clemins said the process works better than any alternative.

"We have a peer-review process that incorporates the viewpoints of a panel of experts, not just a single expert but a panel," Clemins said. "Just as we rely on legislators to make legislative decisions, we should rely on scientific experts to make the scientific decisions on where the next big innovation might occur."

Cut whole categories of research?
To a degree, Coburn and his staff would agree with that: "Ultimately, the decision as to what constitutes 'transformative' or 'potentially transformative' [research] should be left to the scientific community rather than Congress," the report says.

NSF is already working on some of the steps recommended in the report, such as coming up with better ways to measure the impact of federally funded research. But Coburn's recommendations go farther, calling on whole categories of NSF funding (for social studies and science education) to be cut off or consolidated with other federal programs.

Coburn talks quite a bit about the country's budget crisis, but there's an innovation crisis going on as well. Would he really want to axe research into "cross-cultural understanding of others' emotions," knowing that such research has been used to fight terrorists and keep U.S. troops safer in Iraq and Afghanistan? For more about that study, check out this issue of Scientific Enquirer from the Association of American Universities.

The AAU, in fact, has a great Web page that pulls together lots of examples showing how basic research can fuel transformative technologies. The next time politicians take aim at fruit-fly studies and other seemingly silly science, wave this printout in their faces.

The NSF's own studies suggest that the American public is strongly supportive of research that advances the frontiers of knowledge, even if it brings no immediate benefits. Do you agree? As always, feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 9:30 p.m. ET: ScienceInsider's Jeffrey Mervis says Rep. Ralph Hall, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Science Committee, has signaled that NSF isn't the right place to start cutting the budget. In an email, he told Mervis that he has "long supported NSF and believes that their mission supports U.S. scientific discovery and fuels innovation."

Mervis also quotes NSF officials as saying that Coburn's concern about $1.7 billion in unspent funds is based on a misreading of federal statutes. "It's being used for exactly the purpose for which it was intended," an unnamed budget official is quoted as saying.

It sounds as if Coburn's report will end up being little more than a blip on the budget radar screen, and justifiably so. But stay tuned for further developments. The senator's communication director, John Hart, is quoted as saying that future reports will examine the policies and practices of other research agencies.

Update for 11:10 p.m. ET: Among the scientists who feel dissed by Coburn's report is a Twitter pal o' mine, SETI Institute astronomer Franck Marchis. "He is attacking my research on multiple asteroids, stating that I am looking for aliens since it is hosted by the SETI Institute," Marchis writes.

Update for 2:20 a.m. ET May 27: In a blog posting, medical researcher Greg Crowther, the co-leader of SingAboutScience.org, responds to the criticism leveled against his project in Coburn's report. "What's most important here ... is not the senator's misconceptions about our particular project but rather his broader implication that music has no place in the realm of science," Crowther writes. "I emphatically disagree." So do I.

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