The Death of Science

What happens when you make a Christian Scientist the chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology of the House of Representatives? Well, he might just start believing that he really is a scientist, and is qualified to review the scientific peer review process. Strike that: to overhaul the scientific review process in its entirety.

Remember that guy, Stalin? He was on to something. The state was not going to sponsor, or even tolerate, imperialistic bourgeois free-roaming research. Fast forward to 2013: Stalin is gone, the Soviet Union is gone, Lysenkoism is gone (look up Lysenkoism, or, better yet, suppressed research in the Soviet Union). Now the US is allegedly the sole remaining superpower, and it makes it plenty clear: The US is not going to sponsor any politically incorrect or otherwise subversive and not directly “useful” research.

The first incredible step happened as recently as in March 2013. Among the 600-something pages of legislation keeping the government from shutting down was a neatly snuck-in amendment saving “the American people”– gasp! – $11 million (that’s less than the cost of one good old F-16, or 8% of one F-35). This brilliant idea suppressed not only ‘wasteful and inessential spending.’ It also took care of politically incorrect intellectuals. In particular, the bill eliminated the source of 95% of funding for political science studies, i.e., the funding by the National Science Foundation, unless such studies are deemed by the NSF director to be “relevant to national security or U.S. economic interests.” Out with unproductive research, make yourselves useful and contribute to the rising glory of The World’s Superpower!

It appeared promising enough as a precedent, and so, only a month later, we have another brilliant proposal: why only political science? Why not subject National Science Foundation’s entire $6.9 billion budget to a test of political and economic usefulness? How about having “every NSF grant application include a statement of how the research, if funded, ‘would directly benefit the American people’”? The Committee on Science, Space and Technology would surely be happy to verify whether this basic criterion has been properly applied, just like its chairman demanded records of the peer review process on such useless and questionable research as “The International Criminal Court and the Pursuit of Justice.” Did putting a man on the moon somehow “benefit the American people”?

My math friends will certainly not be happy. How do you justify with utility a line of research that, by definition, is abstract and ‘pure,’ as opposed to ‘applied’? Are they to change their specialties altogether, so they can justify their research with military or computer security applications? Are they to abandon entire areas of mathematics that, by any conceivable stretch of one’s imagination, cannot be said at the time it is developed – or even ever – to “directly benefit the American people”? And just how much will all this social engineering of scientific research save? Current NSF awards in algebra and number theory total some $111 million (much less than one F-22 at $143 million). Geometric analysis costs the NSF $72 million, and topology, a ground-breaking area of pure mathematics since the late nineteenth century, a mere $66 million. By comparison, the F-35 program costs $396 billion (that's billion, not million), with an additional low estimate of $1.1 trillion in maintenance and servicing costs. It is seven years behind schedule and 70% over cost estimate. A single F-35, of which several may be expected to crash during testing, training, or accidents over time, is expected to “directly benefit the American people” to the tune of an out-of-pocket price tag of $137 million.

If Congress is so concerned with not ‘wasting money’ on research, how about extracting dollars where they are made by relying on purportedly “not directly useful” research? In particular, academic publishers charge university libraries exorbitant prices, up to $40,000 per journal, so academics may gain actual access to the very same research that the NSF and universities originally sponsored. This research is paid for by grants and universities. The editors and peer reviewers are certainly not paid by the journals – they are considered volunteers, honored to serve science. Currently, even formatting is done by authors and editors. So where exactly is the investment of publishers such as Elsevier? Their entire ‘investment’ is spent on paper and distribution. And, in the case of online access, server space. Harvard announced last year that it can no longer afford to pay extortionate prices for scholarly journals costing its libraries $3.5 million a year. Considering that even small university libraries would still have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to stay abreast of scientific developments, Congress could recover at least part of, if not more than, the money dedicated to research today by tapping into this gold mine that is currently virtually monopolized by a handful of commercial publishers whose substantive contribution to the scientific process and its funding is exactly zero.

And such an obvious and logical move by Congress might actually turn American science back from its way to a hospice. The day this country ceases to be the world's leading producer by a mile of intellectual property and scholarship is the day it will effectively cease to be a superpower. One might envision a lively, controversial discussion with the populist congressional budget-cutters on how that „directly benefits the American people.” America is built on leadership by ideas, after all. Research - even superficially ‘useless’ fundamental research - is utterly indispensable for attracting top talent and thus for obtaining top results. It is a kind of a ‘trickle-down economics’ where talent and results from fundamental and ‘useless’ research (such as pure mathematics!) eventually find uses that change the world and how we see it. One cannot expect a scientist applying for a grant to present a clear and convincing view of the utility of his research before the discovery is made, years and additional grants down the road. Ignoring this reality surely meets one of the many definitions of insanity.

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