Friday Golden Fleece: America [already] COMPETES

Rep. Lamar Smith

That’s right, he’s the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Imagine (or remember): you’re a grad student; you’ve struggled through your first two years juggling classes, teaching and research; you managed to get your committee together so that you could contend with three weeks of written then three hours of oral comprehensive exams. You synthesized your dissertation proposal and your written comps into something coherent, passed a dozen drafts back and forth with your advisor, and finally managed to navigate the FastLane website to get it submitted to the NSF before the deadline. In all likelihood, it was rejected, so you tried again the following year. One day you’re working at your computer when the lab phone rings, and you’re stunned to find that it’s your program officer telling you that your Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant has been funded. $20,000 over two years to support your field work in Bolivia! Some time later, you learn that the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is telling the world that your research in particular is a waste of taxpayer money.

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Friday Golden Fleece: Wildflowers in a Ghost Town

Colorado wildflowers

Colorado wildflowers. Photo by Aeravi.

In response to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus) Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain published a Stimulus Checkup in December, 2009. This pamphlet concludes that “…billions of dollars of stimulus funding have been wasted, mismanaged, or directed towards silly and shortsighted projects,” and, not surprisingly, many of the projects so identified are federally funded scientific studies. Number 35 in this list is an NSF grant to Dr. David Inouye and colleagues:

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Friday Golden Fleece: Strike a Smile

This was a guest post by Gwendolyn Nix.

In a recent article, FierceRoller tackled the notorious Golden Fleece Awards and the Wastebook, two award projects created and given by United States Senators decrying research proposals they deem silly and wasteful.

Naturally, as scientists, we nurse a certain outrage towards those without scientific training (or the determination to fully read a scientific paper) who assert that certain studies are worthless. I don’t go around the House of Representatives telling the Speaker of the House how to do his job. I wouldn’t even go to MacDonald’s and tell the fry cook that I could make better fries without the gumption prove it. Because I am excited to put my money where my mouth is, I’m going to analyze the Golden Fleece Award given to Robert E. Kraut and Robert E. Johnston on their study of why bowlers smile.

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Friday Golden Fleece

Blue monkey

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitas stuhlmanni

Dating back to at least the 1970s, Washington politicians have a tradition of decrying scientific funding that they deem wasteful. From Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award to Sarah Palin’s “fruit fly research in Paris, France” to Senator Tom Coburn‘s annual “Wastebook,” particular research projects that can be made to sound silly are singled out for ridicule. The politicians, of course, have every right to make these criticisms, but scientists often see them as unwelcome intrusions by elected officials who (almost always) lack the scientific background to understand the research they mock.
So how have the politicians done? Have the projects singled out for ridicule indeed been ridiculous wastes of taxpayer money? I (and hopefully some guest bloggers) will be taking a look at some of the criticized projects to understand just how insightful politicians are at identifying useless research.

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