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Research in the national interest

A recent op-ed by Claire Bowern, a professor of linguistics at Yale University, mischaracterized my efforts to ensure that the National Science Foundation (NSF) only awards taxpayer dollars for grants that are in the national interest. Her premise is faulty because she said that I do not consider social science to be a real science.  That is not true, nor have I suggested it shouldn’t be funded by the NSF.

In fact, I support continued funding for worthy social science research projects. But funding for social science should not come at the expense of areas of science – math, engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry and biology – that are most likely to produce breakthroughs that will save lives, create jobs, and promote economic growth.  When the NSF only has the funds to approve one out of five requests for grants, research that is in the national interest should be the highest priority.

{mosads}The original statute that created the National Science Foundation referred to grants being in the national interest.  Arguing against a national interest standard insults American citizens who have every right to expect that their hard-earned dollars will be used on projects that benefit our nation. 

That Professor Bowern doesn’t appreciate the common sense definition of national interest is demonstrated by her own research. She claims that spending thousands of dollars studying how people from north Australia describe points on a compass can be justified as in the national interest. How many taxpayers would agree? 

Other examples of questionable social science grants funded by the NSF include: 

  • Ancient Icelandic textile industry, $487,049
  • Eco consequences of early human-set fires in New Zealand, $339,958
  • History of Chiapas, Mexico (350 BC-1350 AD), $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

How about studying the United States of America? 

Federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used to provide free foreign vacations to college professors. 

Too many important research subjects go underfunded. Interdisciplinary research to understand how the brain works could lead to cures in dementia, Parkinson’s disease as well has how to treat traumatic injury and combat wounds.  Research to advance development of Quantum computers could lead to the next generation of fast computers. 

Unfortunately, the only information available to the public about NSF grants is a brief summary on the agency’s website written by the researcher, without any explanation as to why such research is worthy of taxpayer funds. Americans deserve more transparency and accountability.  

Asking questions to obtain more information about why certain grants were selected and how they benefit the American people is good policy and good government. If the NSF has nothing to hide, why not provide Congress with meaningful justifications for why these grants were approved over the thousands of others that were rejected? 

The author claims a national interest criterion for NSF funding “serves no one.”  Such an attitude only perpetuates the belief that too many academics are isolated and out-of-touch.  Some social science deserves NSF support.  But Americans are tired of writing a blank check for researchers’ pet projects.  

Smith has represented Texas’s 21st Congressional District since 1987. He is chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, and he serves on the Homeland Security and Judiciary committees.


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