Government Funding of 'Scientific' Research

The recent financial struggles of Michigan “green energy” manufacturers A123 Systems and LG Chem left both state and federal taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars. The failed promises of both companies prompted justifiable outrage against the misuse of federal funds and state tax breaks for such enterprises.

In his remarkable Feb. 5 essay for the Hoover Institution, Henry I. Miller makes the case for what constitutes acceptable allocation of public funding for scientific research and, alternately, what he means by “Investing in Bad Science.”

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Since Michigan is ranked 10th in states receiving federal funding for research grants, according to 2011 data, it’s important to scrutinize the overall effectiveness and relevance of the research conducted on the public dime.

Not unlike President Obama in his State of the Union speech, Miller calls for a more serious role for science in public policy debates. The president, unfortunately, quickly revealed his definition of science to be a “majority-of-scientists-concur” gambit for increasing government’s role in combating climate change. In this, he sounds much the same way as the advertising industry’s mad men who attempted to convince potential customers that four out of five dentists agreed a particular chewing gum reduced tooth decay.

Such an approach, however, resulted in the LG Chem, A123 and Solyndra debacles in the first place. Miller abjures the president’s stridency: “Public funding for scientific research should largely be limited to basic scientific discoveries of proof-of-principle experiments — which would be reasonably defined as public goods — rather than efforts to extend science into marketable technologies or products,” he writes, and details three critical criteria for what this research should entail:

  1. Follow recognized experimental methodologies,
  2. Be in the national interest, and
  3. Focus on nontrivial questions or problems.

As noted by Miller, these three criteria can be easily twisted to include funding for items far beyond these stated perimeters. He also asserts that the latter is, fortunately, the exception and not the rule, and notes additionally that “in a time of belt-tightening at the nation’s premier research organizations the dollar amounts could make a real difference to legitimate, high-quality research. Moreover, the fact that certain organizations are systematic and serial offenders cries out for reform.”

Lest faithful Mackinac Center readers assume Miller is keen to disparage the same easy targets as former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, however, this is certainly not the case. Miller relates how the former governor of Alaska got the science all wrong in favor of admirable public policy when she ridiculed government funding for fruit fly research, a not uncommon error performed frequently by office holders of all political stripes.

As it happens, Miller points out, there exists a 50 percent commonality between the genes of the humble fruit fly and humans. In fact, research on the fruit fly has yielded tremendous benefits on the study of human aging and genetic activity in general.

Miller is less reserved when admonishing Rep. Hank Johnson, D-GA, for fretting that Guam may be capsized by the sheer weight of U.S. troops stationed there. This, writes Miller, goes beyond rational ignorance and lands squarely within “the realm of nonsense.”

Admonishment is one thing, but Miller heaps scorn on the National Institutes of Health’s $130 million annual funding of research at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine for project such as “Long-Term Chamomile Therapy of Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and “Restorative Yoga for Therapy of Metabolic Syndrome.”

Likewise, Miller finds much research conducted by the National Science Foundation that fails to meet his simple three criteria. To bolster his conclusion, he quotes an April 2011 report released by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, “NSF Under the Microscope,” in which such NSF boondoggles as “how to ride a bike; when dogs became man’s best friend; whether political views are genetically predetermined; whether parents choose trendy baby names; the best time to buy a ticket to a sold out sporting event; and why the same teams always seem to dominate the NCAA basketball playoffs” were exposed.

According to  Sen. Coburn, a doctor so therefore a man of science, “only politicians appear to benefit from other NSF studies, such as research on what motivates individuals to make political donations, how politicians can benefit from Internet town halls … and how politicians use the Internet.” To Coburn’s lengthy list, Miller adds from his own employment experience at the NSF: “how power affects empathy” and “outlook on life and political ideology.”

But wait, as the hucksters say, there’s more! Miller saves the best of the boondoggles for last: the Environmental Protection Agency, which he proclaims the “master of waste, fraud and abuse among the research-funding agencies” with an $800 million annual research budget. Among the many examples of the agency’s malfeasance are $5 million, five-year grant disbursements to public relations consultants hired to affix a little lipstick to the agency’s mostly deserved tarnished image brought about, according to Miller, by “shoddy, irrelevant and unpublishable” research.

All told, Sen. Coburn’s report on overall research agency funding identified “$65 million in wasteful spending on low-priority projects, $19 million lost to fraud, $1.2 billion in duplication and $1.9 billion in other forms of mismanagement. Altogether this report identifies over $3 billion lost to waste, fraud, duplication and mismanagement.”

Miller calls on researchers and editors affiliated with science publications and high-profile scientists to pressure Congress to demand his three criteria of good science are met by research agencies receiving taxpayer funds.

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