Eric Cantor (R-VA), who’ll become House majority leader when the next US Congress convenes in January, is launching an experiment. Called YouCut Citizen Review, Cantor’s web-based initiative seeks the public’s advice in cutting federally funded projects. Perhaps because NSF’s awards database is online and open to the public, Cantor and his colleagues picked America’s science agency for its first target.
Adrian Smith (R-NE) introduces the NSF campaign with a short video. His arguments seem neither unreasonable nor extreme. He’s in favor of NSF funding for the “hard sciences,” which, he says, has led to 150 American Nobel Prizes. It’s the soft science he doesn’t like. To quote from the YouCut website,
Recently, however NSF has funded some more questionable projects—$750 000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players and $1.2 million to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game industry. Help us identify grants that are wasteful or that you don’t think are a good use of taxpayer dollars.
It’s tempting to attack YouCut as a cynical ploy to shrink government and cut taxes by exploiting the public’s limited understanding of cutting-edge science. To the uninitiated, quark soup, WIMPs, Sonic hedgehog, and the hairy ball theorem might sound silly, questionable, and dispensable.
It’s tempting, too, to attack Cantor and Smith, neither of whom has a background in science. Although Smith currently serves on the House Science Committee and its technology and innovation subcommittee, he attended Liberty University, which was founded in 1971 by TV evangelist Jerry Falwell. The university’s Doctrinal Statement includes the paragraph:
We affirm that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, though written by men, was supernaturally inspired by God so that all its words are the written true revelation of God; it is therefore inerrant in the originals and authoritative in all matters. It is to be understood by all through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, its meaning determined by the historical, grammatical, and literary use of the author’s language, comparing Scripture with Scripture.
Liberty University teaches young Earth creationism.
However, as a proponent of free speech, open government, and science education, I don’t object to YouCut. NSF spends millions trying to interest the public in the research it funds. Those projects should be able to withstand the scrutiny of the public who ultimately pays for them.
As for Smith’s computer-modeled soccer players, I couldn’t find the corresponding application on NSF’s awards database. Searching for “soccer” yielded 34 successful applications, some of which had to do with fullerenes. Fortunately, USA Today‘s science reporter Dan Vergano had rooted out the offending application and linked to it on his blog.
Far from being wasteful or frivolous, the soccer study turned out to be directed toward understanding virtual collaborations. Moreover, the grant application—in common with the ones I found with my “soccer” search—had a compelling, easy-to-understand abstract. Even the soft-seeming “2007 RoboCup International Symposium” made a strong case:
The RoboCup International Symposium is the premier meeting for presentation and discussion of scientific advances in diverse areas inspired by the RoboCup Initiative, including: robot soccer, rescue robotics, and robots and people. The Symposium’s scope encompasses research and education activities in the fields of computer vision, artificial intelligence, human robot interaction, multi-agent systems, robot mechanisms, and robot locomotion. The 11th annual RoboCup International Symposium will be held in conjunction with RoboCup 2007 in Atlanta, July 9-10, 2007.
If members of the public trawl NSF’s awards database for questionable science, they could be surprised, relieved, and intrigued—but not outraged. YouCut’s campaign against NSF could backfire. I hope so.