Picture Your Grant on the Hannity Show: David Inouye on why basic research isn’t a bridge to nowhere

This post contributed by Piper Corp, ESA’s Science Policy Analyst, for The Ecologist Goes to Washington segment. 

David Inouye from the University of Maryland and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory

The scientific community celebrated the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which prioritized US scientific understanding, competitiveness, and capacity by directing $3 billion to the National Science Foundation (NSF), including $2 billion for research and related activities. Part of the reason for the windfall was NSF’s large backlog of unfunded but highly ranked proposals—something that complemented the stimulus act’s emphasis on “shovel-ready” projects.  

But as scientists are getting to work, Senators Coburn (R-OK) and McCain (R-AZ) have been heading up an effort to identify instances of “wasteful spending” in the ARRA, highlighting their objections first in 100 Stimulus Projects: A Second Opinion, which they worked with the Obama Administration to address, and more recently in their Stimulus Checkup. According to the report,  

billions of dollars of stimulus funding have been wasted, mismanaged, or directed towards silly and shortsighted projects. Many projects may not produce the types of jobs that most Americans had hoped for or expected.  

The follow-up report pointed to another 100 ARRA-funded projects; David Inouye’s NSF grant to study the response of alpine wildflowers to climate change was #35. He wasn’t the only scientist targeted— funding for honeybee research, wetland-facilitated improvements to water quality, and the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, appeared alongside grants for puppet shows and bar renovations as examples of fiscal irresponsibility. Ten percent of the projects listed in the senators’ report were funded through NSF; many more through science initiatives at other federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  

Given the strong emphasis on transparency for ARRA grants, this kind of watchdog work is important. But the disproportionate focus on basic research indicates not wasteful spending, but rather a lack of appreciation for the scientific process.  And this misconception is only exacerbated by the mocking tone with which the studies are described by critical lawmakers and members of the media. Fox News political commentator Sean Hannity followed up on both reports, using his show to offer an at-times humorous account of the “worst ways the government is spending your tax dollars.”  The Stimulus Checkup itself, which referred to Inouye’s study as a “Study of Wildflowers in a Ghost Town,” introduced a study of bi-parental care in birds as follows:  

All we need to know, we learned in kindergarten – but a good dose of stimulus money can be a helpful reminder. The University of Oklahoma received a $90,000 grant to conduct an experimental analysis of simple cooperation, with the aim of improving our understanding of cooperation in general.  

In the interview (listen below), Inouye discusses the experience of having his work singled out in these ways and explains how basic research is indeed a public investment, one that complements society’s near-term goals (his findings have strong implications for both tourism and agriculture) while generating  knowledge with which to meet future challenges.  

The Ecologist Goes to Washington features the stories and reflections of scientists who have engaged their local, state or federal governments in addressing the broader implications of their research. EGWASH is primarily a podcast but also features written stories or submitted videos and other materials describing ecologists’ experiences on the Hill and in policy. To share your unique or enlightening stories for consideration by EGWASH, email Piper Corp at esablog@esa.org  

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Author: Piper Corp

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