Schachtman: High, Higher, Highest Quality Research Act

wavy capitalSince posting on the High Quality Research act a few weeks ago, I’ve been following it in the news, have received letters from professional committees (asking us to write letters), and now see that  Nathan A. Schachtman, Esq., PC posted the following on May 25, 2013 on his legal blog*:

NAS-3“The High Quality Research Act” (HQRA), which has not been formally introduced in Congress, continues to draw attention. SeeClowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right.”  Last week, Sarewitz suggests that “the problem” is the hype about the benefits of pure research and the let down that results from the realization that scientific progress is “often halting and incremental,” with much research not “particularly innovative or valuable.”  Fair enough, but why is this Congress such an unsophisticated consumer of scientific research in the 21st century?  How can it be a surprise that the scientific community engages in the same rent-seeking behaviors as do other segments of our society? Has it escaped Congress’s attention that scientists are subject to enthusiasms and group think, just like, … congressmen?

Nature published an editorial piece suggesting that the HQRA is not much of a threat. Daniel Sarewitz, “Pure hype of pure research helps no one, ” 497 Nature 411 (2013).

Still, Sarewitz believes that the HQRA bill is not particularly threatening to the funding of science:

“In other words, it’s not a very good bill, but neither is it much of a threat. In fact, it’s just the latest skirmish in a long-running battle for political control over publicly funded science — one fought since at least 1947, when President Truman vetoed the first bill to create the NSF because it didn’t include strong enough lines of political accountability.”

This sanguine evaluation misses the effect of the superlatives in the criteria for National Science Foundation funding:

“(1) is in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

(2) is the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

(3) is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

HQRA Section 2(a) – (c).  These superlatives set up most research proposals to fail because of the scientific community’s inability to predict in advance which studies will be truly “ground breaking” and will “answer questions .. that are of utmost importance….”  Congressmen will thus be able selectively to target research grants to embarrass the NSF Director in public hearings.  The Director will hardly be able to defend a particular grant with the assertion that, “well, we have many other grants that are also very fine, although not of the “finest quality”; we have other grants that are really important to society, but also not of the “utmost” importance.

Certainly, there is a good deal of wasted research funding, on grants that are frivolous.  Directing funding to worthwhile research is not an easy task, but it almost certainly beyond the ken of congressional committees.

What the HQRA attempts to set up is not another layer of peer review by the NSF Director, but by Congress itself, with a line-item veto for research that offends particular Congressional sensibilities.  Sarewitz is naive to believe that this bill poses little threat or change to the funding of science in the United States.  The HQRA is a particularly serious threat, not to NSF funding of scientific research, but to the selection of grants that to be funded.

Congress should be looking at the NSF budget for waste, but the best way to ensure that the NSF triages funding of truly important research is to limit the funds appropriated.  Contrary to the current wisdom, neither right nor left has a monopoly on stupidity when it comes to science.  The history of federal funding of alternative medicine in this country (e.g., National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and previously the Office of Alternative Medicine.) illustrates all too well how ideological funding and Congressional “oversight” works. See, e.g., Eric Boyle, “The Politics of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health,” Federal History online 16 (2011).

The HQRA is the wrong way to go, and wouldn’t achieve much (people would change the titles of their projects to suit). I’d rather see critical oversight by scholars, but from outside the field of a program. (Peers and panels can get very hermetic.) Rather than  limiting the funds appropriated across the board, which really would be bad, perhaps, in times of shrinking budgets, a scrutiny of whole programs could recommend what to cut, what to grow for a period.

* Schachtman, wise man that he is, doesn’t have comments open on his blog, but we can engage him here.

Categories: evidence-based policy, PhilStatLaw, Statistics | Tags: | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “Schachtman: High, Higher, Highest Quality Research Act

  1. Nathan Schachtman


    Thanks, but truth be told, wise = cowardly; I admit it. It’s bad enough I must answer to disciplinary boards (NY, NJ) for myself, but it’s too much to answer for all my interlocutors. As for peers and panels, hermetic and insular. My financial funnel proposal is drastic, I admit, but it forces someone, on the inside or the outside, to make some tough decisions.



  2. Nate: “wise = cowardly; I admit it. It’s bad enough I must answer to disciplinary boards (NY, NJ) for myself, but it’s too much to answer for all my interlocutors.”
    I’ve never had to answer for my commentators on on the blog, fortunately. You’re safe here.
    “My financial funnel proposal is drastic, I admit, but it forces someone, on the inside or the outside, to make some tough decisions.”
    But there are always cuts. That just brings the obvious candidates to the top. More drastic would be to cut programs, or encourage matching funds from PIs.

  3. I haven’t heard much ado about a bill that I take it has already passed to restrict political science funding from N.S.F to research promoting national security or U.S. economic interests. Or did I just miss it? And why did they pick political science?

  4. anonymous

    You wrote: “people would change the titles of their projects to suit”. How does that work?

    • Anon: Well take one of the projects to which the bill’s founder objected: “Picturing Animals in National Geographic, 1888-2008,” I know nothing about this project, but suppose it were titled something like, “National Geographic: photographs of animals and enhancement of homeland security: 1888-2008.”

  5. With silly statements like “The left wants scientists to practice science for the redistribution of wealth.” Mr. Schachtman does little to inspire confidence in his ability to assess much of anything. That noted, the HQRA seems like a pretty awful idea.

    And, for better or worse – almost certainly the latter – researchers do routinely tailor their project titles and proposal abstracts to incorporate whatever’s hot at the moment. We understand the Gartner hype cycle and how to exploit it when necessary.

    • Chris G: I see that the remark you call out is not in this article but in the earlier one to which Schachtman links. But surely it was meant to be as absurd as supposing the right wants the goal of science to be promoting the glory of God or the like. The point was to say, in an exaggerated way, that all sides have agendas.

      • > The point was to say, in an exaggerated way, that all sides have agendas.

        My complaint is that the facts on the ground don’t support that assertion. There is an organized and politically-influential right wing in this country. There is no organized left wing and the disorganized left has zero influence on public policy.

        Consider the statement “We want scientists to practice science for the redistribution of wealth.” Who holds that view? There are >300 million people in the US. I don’t doubt there are some but who are they? Name names. Figuring there are some people who hold that position what influence do they have over science policy and funding of scientific research? I believe the correct answer is “Zero.” I’m open to being proven wrong but I’ll wager that I’m more likely to be struck by lightning on my way to the kitchen within the next ten minutes than I am to be shown evidence of left wing influence on science policy and R&D funding. The Left hasn’t had political influence in the US for >40 years. The Right is a major player.

        (Two commentaries on the problem with the “extremists on both sides are the problem”:
        2. )

        Mr. Schachtman’s statement hit two of my pet peeves: 1) throwaway lines and 2) statements which are obviously ridiculous when subjected to even a minimal reality check. I find ridiculous throwaway lines particularly annoying. And distracting. Notice how I’ve written a few paragraphs about the problem with Schachtman’s intro and haven’t gotten to the HQRA – which should have been the focus. The takehome message – to Mr. Schachtman and anyone else listening: Present your position and argue it on its merits. No throwaway lines. No absurdities. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

  6. Chris G:

    The point was to say, in an exaggerated way, (1) that all sides have agendas.
    You: My complaint is that the facts on the ground don’t support that assertion.

    Me: There’s huge difference between (1) and
    (2) “We want scientists to practice science for the redistribution of wealth.”

    (2), I take it was Schachtman trying to be funny on his blog, (1) I take it is obvious.
    You seem to deny even (1) by saying:
    “There is an organized and politically-influential right wing in this country. There is no organized left wing and the disorganized left has zero influence on public policy.”

    Well it reminds a bit of the joke when asked: Are you a member of any organized religion?
    Answer: No, I’m Jewish.

    But seriously, there needn’t be all that much organization for there to be an ‘agenda’.

    But you raise very good questions that I’d hoped to discuss when I first posted on the HQRA, such as do people’s biases/preferred outcomes (suggest a better phrase) have “influence over science policy and funding of scientific research?” Well the discussion is on NSF, so the people would be largely peer reviewers, right? Well, here’s one bias Schachtman talks a lot about on his blog (with fingers pointed to certain philosophers): a tendency to err toward precaution regarding policies with potential risky consequences. This can often translate into preferences for or against certain methodologies, i.e., minimizing type 2 errors where the null asserts “no risk”.

    What do you say about this?

    I should dig up that Wasserman deconstruction I once wrote….

    • On (1): I don’t deny that people have agendas. My point is that if someone/some group isn’t in a position to implement their agenda then that’s not meaningfully different from not having an agenda. Suppose the Spartacus Youth League wants scientists to practice science for the purpose of redistributing wealth? So what? There are people who believe that the moon landing was filmed on a military base in CA. So what? They have no political power and no one takes them seriously. Whatever their agenda is it may be ignored. What matters is people with loopy ideas gaining sufficient power to put them into practice.

      Re tendencies to err toward precaution regarding policies with potential risky consequences… I’ll think on it and respond at length later. In general, I believe in proceeding with caution. Proceeding with caution seems prudent when the downside risks of a course of action aren’t well-understood.

      • Chris G: It might be noted that NSF panels aren’t all that large, and their determination is based on outside letters, maybe ~3 or 4. So it just takes a few people’s scores to tank a proposal.

  7. Nathan Schachtman

    Well Mayo, maybe I am not so safe here.

    Chris “G” (who is shy about sharing his last name) could find my position pretty clearly spelled out in the segments of the posts Mayo reproduced. Those segments include a good part of my critique of the HQRA, and there are links to my own blog, where you might find greater detail.

    There is nothing absurd about physician or scientist expert witnesses who promote agendas in litigation. If you have read my blog, you will see that I have named any number of scientists who do so. Carl Cranor is someone I have been harping about recently, although admittedly he holds the title of professor of philosophy, not professor of science. I have named others, and I have detailed their sins of omission or commission in some detail; this is hardly the time or place.

    There are even times when the left and the right join in the same scientific apostasies. Consider how both McCain and Obama both suggested that vaccines and autism were related in the 2008 election, and how Bachmann was converted to a similar view about the HPV vaccine on the basis of a woman’s anecdote about her child. Oh and then there was the uplifting story of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, and his brief on how thimerosal supposedly causes autism.

    I agree that the left has been greatly diminished as a political force in this country, much to the detriment of our political conversation. It is hard to tell President Obama from his predecessor on way too many issues, but that’s not really the point. My point was how politics motivates scientific agendas to the detriment of good science. On my website, I gave examples so-called social conservatives legislating mandatory physician counseling about “informed consent” for abortion to include supposed risk of breast cancer, and the leftist scientists and law professors such as some members of the the Center for Progressive Reform who misrepresent essential aspects of scientific method.

    Yes; I was engaging in rhetoric to make my point. This is Mayo’s blog not mine, and if you want names, read my blog. Egilman, Levy, Kramer, Cranor, and many others.

    And I find annoying anyone who makes arguments that include words or phrases such as “obviously ridiculous” or “absurdities” or “particularly annoying.” Learn to drop the adjectives; you might even have an argument under all the rhetorical lard.


    Nathan Schachtman

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