By Amanda Biederman
Chief Science Correspondent
On Monday Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Lamar Smith published an article in POLITICO Magazine titled "No, the GOP is Not at War With Science - But that doesn't mean we shouldn't question our federal science funding."
Paul and Smith appeal to taxpayers, encouraging them to be critical of the ways in which their money is spent by organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. They also stress that the NSF and the NIH should fund projects that have the potential to provide the most benefit to the nation in terms of medicine and technology.
"...to remain a world leader, the United States must ensure that our investments are funding not just any science but the science," they wrote.
A climate change-themed musical - $700,000
An investigation of tea party activity on social media - $919,000
A study of bicycle designs - $300,000
Ancient Icelandic textile industry - $487,049
Eco consequences of early human-set fires in New Zealand - $339,958
History of Chiapas, Mexico (350 B.C.-A.D. 1350) - $280,558
Mayan architecture and the salt industry - $233,141
Do Turkish women wear veils because they are fashionable? - $199,088
How local Asian Indian politicians can improve their performance - $425,000
Lawsuits in Peru from 1600-1700 - $50,000
"These programs might sound merely frivolous, but the problem is that when the NSF or NIH funds projects of these kinds, there is less money to support good scientific research that can yield technological breakthroughs and opportunities for economic growth," Paul and Smith wrote, noting that important projects such as Ebola research are competing with the previously mentioned "wasteful grants." They are not the first to raise these concerns.
In October, Breitbart News Network published an article titled "NIH Spent Millions Studying Origami Condoms, Poop-Throwing Chimpanzees Instead of Ebola" in which writer Tony Lee highlights a number of apparently overfunded studies on fruit flies, chimpanzees and human behavior. Again, I'll provide the numbers, because they'll be important in a few paragraphs:
New condom design - $2.4 million
Fruit fly mating behaviors study - $939,000
White House garden website - $257,000
Poop-flinging chimpanzees/communication study -$592,000
Chimp dexterity study - $117,000
Marriage study - $325,000
Binge drinking/ maturity study - $548,000
"A lot of the work that seems obscure -- just reading it out of context makes people think it’s not worth doing, These things are peer-reviewed, and people find them important."
-David Sanders, Purdue University
The NIH and NSF received $29.9 billion and $5.8 billion in government funding this year towards science research, respectively. (The NSF was awarded an additional $846 million specifically for outreach activities - which is probably where the funding for the climate change musical came from. This project did not even outcompete medical or technological research projects.)
This might seem like a lot of money, but the levels of funding to both organizations have actually decreased steadily over the past decade when accounting for inflation. Additionally, NIH funding only accounts for less than 1 percent of all government spending (Forbes). A taxpayer who becomes outraged at the cost of a scientific project may not realize how relatively little of his salary actually went towards that project - or any science project, for that matter.
Furthermore, even with the relatively miniscule portion of government funding that goes towards science research, the "ridiculous" projects that have been criticized actually comprise a very small portion of all science funding. One million dollars might seem like a limitless amount of money - and, to the average person, it can be difficult to visualize the relative difference. To make these amounts of money easier to understand, I broke them down into values that most people are more likely to encounter in their everyday lives.
An ordinary man - let's call him Francis - earns $29,900 per year. It's a modest salary, but he manages to get by and puts most of his money towards the things that he believes are most critical. But some of Francis' money goes toward smaller purchases.
When adjusted to a "normal" salary, the 2.4 million condom project only equals $2.40 - less than a meal at McDonald's. The other highly criticized projects total even smaller relative amounts - less than a pack of gum.
Again, to put this in perspective, the NIH comprises less than 1 percent of the total U.S. federal budget, and the NSF less still. So these "frivolous" projects are a small fraction of another small fraction; in essence, they comprise a wholly insignificant amount of taxpayer money.
Both Lee and Paul/Smith state that these less practical projects are replacing more urgent undertakings. However, far greater amounts of money are being poured into projects that might have more obvious practical applications. For instance, in 2014 the NIH allocated $566 million towards Alzheimer's research (Nearly 1,000 times more than was allocated toward the chimp poop study) and $5.4 billion towards cancer research.
Just to put those numbers back in perspective, our ordinary man contributed $5,400 towards cancer research last year.
The NSF tends to provide funding to researchers' whose field lies outside immediate application to medicine. It's interesting then, that the Paul/Smith article mostly focused on ways in which these funds could have been allocated for the betterment of human health. The NSF actually only funds grant proposals that have provided what the organization calls "broader impacts." To receive funding, investigators must demonstrate that their research, regardless of the topic, has the potential to contribute generally to society that goes beyond simple generation of scientific data.
The Icelandic textile project, for example, appears to have been proposed with the intent of using isotopic analysis of wool artifacts to match historical and archaeological records. The investigators argued that the historical changes in textiles indicate changes in the culture, as well as the climate of the region. It also provided insight into additional topics, including regional trade and gender roles during this period.
Additionally, NSF-funded projects often incorporate an educational or outreach component to the project. Education of real science research - not just science from a textbook - is an extremely valuable tool for encouraging both for the general public and for students who may be considering careers in science. The public/science disconnect is a major problem, but broader impacts projects have potential to make science more accessible. And that's not something that can be reduced to a monetary value.
Finally, not all science projects have to have an immediate medical or technological application to be considered valuable. In dismissing projects such as the Icelandic project and the chimp studies, Paul, Smith and Lee seem to be disregarding social science and animal behavior altogether. Archaeology, sociology and psychology are still important fields that should be pursued in 2015. And as silly as a study on monkey communication or fly mating might seem, scientists study animals to better understand both humanity as well as evolution in general.
"A lot of the work that seems obscure -- just reading it out of context makes people think it’s not worth doing," said Purdue University scientist David Sanders in response to recent congressional criticisms of science funding allocation. "These things are peer-reviewed, and people find them important."
These criticisms - intentionally or unintentionally - draw readers away from organizations that provide an extraordinarily diverse array of benefits to society as a whole.