Sensible priorities for taxpayer-supported science
© Getty Images

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, on which we both serve, recently reviewed the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) proposed budget for next year. It includes more than $6 billion for basic scientific research. NSF-funded research has laid the foundations for most of the technological breakthroughs that define the modern world:  GPS, wireless communications, life-saving medicines and more.

But one aspect of NSF spending continues to be incredibly wasteful – the diversion of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to questionable proposals in the social sciences. Recent years’ examples of such projects include: 

  • $227,000 to study animal photographs in National Geographic magazine,
  • $1.5 million to study pasture management in Mongolia, and
  • $920,000 to study Viking-era textiles.

ADVERTISEMENT
When the NSF awards taxpayer funds to hundreds of these kinds of activities, it means tens of millions of dollars less for higher value research in fields such as cyber security, gene editing and quantum computing.

The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, one of the last pieces of legislation that President Obama signed into law, required each NSF-supported research project be in the national interest. “National interest” was part of the NSF’s original 1950 congressional charter. But years later, the NSF has drifted away from its original mission and opened the door for thousands of social scientists to get taxpayer financing of their pet projects and free foreign excursions.

In the wake of last year’s legislation, the NSF has taken some positive steps, including requiring plain English explanations of each project at its website. However, there is still a lot that the NSF needs to do. The NSF continues to award millions of taxpayer dollars to projects for which there is no apparent national interest. A few recent examples: 

  • $310,000 to study form letters that members of Congress send to each other,
  • $138,000 to study Capuchin monkey responses to “inequity and violated expectations,” and
  • $450,000 to study why there is no Somali word for blue and why there is no single English word for light blue. 

There are certainly areas of national interest for which the social sciences can make valuable contributions. For example, the human behavioral patterns involved in cyber security and natural disaster response and recovery.

There are also important, unresolved social and behavioral issues of major importance to our country’s future. How to break patterns of multi-generational poverty, domestic abuse and violent crime? Or how to stop the opioid addiction crisis?

The social sciences community believes it has an entitlement to at least $250-300 million every year from taxpayers. This entitlement includes low-priority, sometimes frivolous projects. Academics eagerly spend taxpayer funds, but they object when the American people ask about the national interest in spending $330,000 to study cell phone use in Tanzania or nearly $2 million to study fishing practices at Lake Victoria in Africa or $516,000 to create an adult video game entitled “Prom Night.”

Such unjustified public funding is more than an affront to taxpayers; it is a waste of funds needed for serious scientific research. Until social science research refocuses on our nation’s most difficult and important problems, the NSF should stop giving millions of dollars each year to what are low-priority proposals.

Our future economic prosperity and national security depend on pioneering research in computer science, biology, physics, chemistry and engineering. These are the vital areas of science on which public funds should be focused.

Smith is chairman of the House Science Committee. Biggs is chairman on the Science Subcommittee on Environment.