Keep politics out of science

Current funding process has worked well for decades

The author is a professor of biology at Chico State University. This photo was taken when Marchetti was scuba diving during a 2005 research trip to La Paz in Mexico.

The United States is a world leader in the sciences because of our ability to innovate, and our scientists stand at the core of that innovation. The United States invests hundreds of billions of dollars annually in research and education in part because our economic growth depends upon a combination of innovation and technological advance.

If the U.S. had not made an exceptional investment in science and education throughout the 20th century, we would not enjoy the standard of living we have today. Science improves our lives; it helps us stay healthy and live longer and provides the tools necessary to manage our valuable and dwindling natural resources.

In September 2010, relying only on project titles and short public abstracts, Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska, a member of the House Science and Technology Committee, sharply criticized the National Science Foundation for funding several research projects that he personally found questionable. He suggested that politicians and the general public should be involved in reducing “wasteful spending” by weighing in on these scientific funding decisions, despite their obviously limited knowledge of the subject matter.

The National Science Foundation uses an extremely competitive peer-review process to evaluate proposed research. Funding rates are typically quite low, dropping well below 5 percent in some programs. Consequently, only extremely well-vetted projects get funded, and large numbers of deserving projects go unfunded.

Is it true that some of these projects have quirky titles and is it true that the relevance of some of the projects is hard to understand based on a few-words summary? Yes, but, the overwhelming reasons for receiving a grant are the quality and scientific merit of the work, not the marketability of the project’s title.

There is currently a push in Washington to eliminate earmarks. That push is largely motivated by a desire to see projects funded on their merits, as decided by experts, and not on the basis of who sits on a congressional committee. This is a laudatory trend, and one that follows the example the National Science Foundation and other federal science agencies have relied on for decades and that has helped generate the advances that improve our lives.

Let’s let the experts do their jobs and stay away from politicizing science.