Friday, May 11, 2007

Political Science:

More nonsense about pencil-necked scientists from those savants on the Hill, via the American Institute of Physics' FYI listserv edition.

Discussing the reauthorization bill (H.R. 1867) for the National Science Foundation, there were several attempts at amendments to limit the increase in the budgets for the NSF or to at least limit the areas in which NSF was allowed to invest taxpayer moneys:

There was far more discussion about an amendment offered by Rep. John Campbell (R-CA-48): "None of the funds authorized under this section may be used for research related to seven activities such as "the accuracy in the cross-cultural understanding of others' emotions" or "archives of Andean Knotted-Sting Records." Said Campbell: "What this amendment does is it says that there are certain things upon which we should not be spending money through this bill during this time of budget deficits, stealing Social Security funds, and increasing taxes." He added, "I understand that there is a process of peer review from which these studies come in the National Science Foundation, and that's all well and good. But our job here is we are the elected representatives and stewards of the taxpayers' money, not the academics in the National Science Foundation, and it is our decision whether or not we wish to spend taxpayers' funds on studies of the social relationships and reproductive strategies of Phayre's leaf monkeys or on bison hunting on the late prehistoric Great Plains. I think we should not do that. I am sure that some believe that these are very fine academic studies. That's excellent. Within the realms of academic halls, they may think a number of things are fine academic studies. That's not the question. The question before us is, do these things rise to the standard of requiring expenditures of taxpayer funds in a time of deficits, proposed tax increases and raiding Social Security funds? I think the answer is a resounding no."

Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA-3) immediately refuted the logic of the Campbell amendment, first quoting a letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the similar position of the Association of American Universities. He then said, "the gentleman [Rep. Campbell] seems to suggest, it seems, that we here in the Congress, with a cursory evaluation of the abstracts from studies, should insert ourselves in the peer-review process. I wonder if the gentleman had looked at chemistry research or physics research in the same way, and do we really want to spend this body's time, and do you, sir, or you, sir, have the expertise to evaluate these studies? That's why we have a peer-review process. That's why we have a National Science Foundation. It is why we have a Science Foundation Board to direct us."

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI-3) outlined his opposition, telling his colleagues: "you can't always judge the full proposal by the title. This was evident a few years ago when we went through exactly the same charade when discussing the National Science Foundation budget. Some of my colleagues came down to the floor to amend the NSF appropriations bill, and one offered an amendment to remove grants for the study of ATM. This person gave a magnificent speech why we should not spend money at the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy to study ATM. His argument was, let the banking industry do the research on ATMs. What he didn't know is that the proposal was not on automatic teller machines but the proposal was on studying asynchronous transfer modes, which involves the way computers talk to each other. This research led to a substantial change in the speed at which computers were able to talk to each other. This is a good example of why it is dangerous to just look at titles and make a judgment."

Sigh. Echoes of "why do we need NOAA? We have the Weather Channel to do that."

Ranking Member Vernon Ehlers (R-MI-3) is a Ph.D. physicist, one of only two Members of Congress with scientific degrees.
"Only two members of Congress hold doctorates in the sciences, both in physics: Rep. Vern Ehlers of Michigan ..., and Rep. Rush Holt [(D-NJ-12)] of New Jersey (leader of the congressional Science Coalition and former Congressional Science Fellow). Sadly, the House Science Committee and the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space are not considered high profile committees and many of the members assigned to these committees have little expertise in the broad array of scientific issues that come before them, yet they are being asked to determine the direction and funding of federal science."
(Michèle Koppes, 2004-2005 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow)

Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA-3) is the House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Chairman.

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