How did ant science get into the stimulus bill?

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In reading various web reactions to news that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act contained nearly 1 million dollars for ant research at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, it seems there’s a lot of confusion about how something like ant behavior winds up getting a stimulus check.  Here’s an explanation.

Our starting point is the observation that stimulus has to be fast to be effective.  The obvious problem is that we all know how fast goverment usually acts, and if the government were to put out a call for stimulus proposals with a full process of review and oversight, stimulus money wouldn’t arrive until 2012 or so.  Just as costly, but far too late to do any good.  So the architects of the stimulus needed to find job-creating projects that were pre-reviewed and ready to roll as soon as the cash hit the accounts.

A rich source of boots-on-the-ground projects is the National Science Foundation (NSF), which got 0.3% of the stimulus package.  NSF receives at least four times as many proposals as it can fund.   Every year, a great many projects that the reviewers recommend for funding do not receive a penny.  So NSF has a backlog of unfunded studies that are deemed excellent.  The labs are in place, the experiments are planned, and all that is needed is salary to hire students and postdocs to do the work.

The stimulus allowed NSF to take projects they’d already recommended for funding and fund them.  The offending Arizona ant projects were just two of many. That’s it.

So if you were planning to picket ASU in protest of misguided stimulus money, remember that those naughty ant researchers never asked for stimulus funds.  They submitted regular proposals through the normal NSF pipeline.  Their grants were reviewed and approved by a panel of experts before the stimulus bill was even conceived.  There was no back room deal between Rahm Emanuel and an international cabal of shady myrmecologists.  Just a higher rate of funding through the existing infrastructure.

Now, we can debate whether deficit spending in a recession is sound policy.  Or whether the stimulus should have gone to science agencies in the first place.  Valid issues for discussion, all.  But one thing that really is ridiculous is the notion that somehow John McCain and Tom Coburn know best what sort of research should be funded.

Current funding allocations are decided by anonymous panels of scientific reviewers.  As a system it works relatively well for supporting research on the merits.  However, I can’t imagine anything that would turn the system into a bigger barrel of pork than allowing members of Congress to give line-item funding approval to individual projects.  If John McCain had his way, our national science establishment would become little more than politics as usual.

11 thoughts on “How did ant science get into the stimulus bill?”

  1. “I can’t imagine anything that would turn the system into a bigger barrel of pork than allowing members of Congress to give line-item funding approval to individual projects”

    As a soon-to-be-former federal employee who has seen firsthand how political meddling can seriously damage the integrity and outcomes of a peer review process, I can’t IMAGINE anything more terrifying.

  2. I’m all for research and funding of legitimate science but why, after the last month, should anyone take the statement: “Current funding allocations are decided by anonymous panels of scientific reviewers. As a system it works relatively well for supporting research on the merits. ” on faith.

    As we’ve seen there are always plenty of opportunities to game the system.

    1. You don’t have to take it “on faith”- you can read the proposals and awards themselves at the NSF website. You can also find the papers produced through NSF-funded research in places like pubmed and evaluate the quality of the research yourself.

      I’m not sure what the alternative to publicly-funded science should be, though. Are you suggesting that governments shouldn’t fund science at all?

    2. ! Who would you rather have making the funding decisions, if not expert peer reviewers?
      Government-funded peer-review-based research funding may not be perfect, but it’s better than the alternatives (arbitrary funding decisions made by bureaucrats or no funding at all).
      Yes, a government will often set specific targets or frameworks that may seem arbitrary or ill-informed (or flat-out maddening), but ultimately its the reviewers who make the decisions about who gets funding.

  3. not to mention the fact that these projects EMPLOY anywhere from 5-10 people for a period of at least 3 years! is that not the purpose of the money?

  4. Between the computer and the condom: a million to study ant workers and no global warming connection!

    I skimmed the Coburn-McCain list (ants are midway at 50, bracketed as above) after reading the PLoS article that Harald Schillhammer pointed out and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t try a career in science journalism. How’s the grab of my first headline? Are denialist ant worshippers getting money that could be saving the planet?

  5. The whole reason we fund BASIC science in the first place is that it’s impossible to predict what research topics will lead to big technological breakthroughs.

    1. I certainly agree with the need to fund basic science, but I think we should be be careful about saying the “whole” reason is strictly utilitarian. It’s true that practical advances can come from unexpected sources, and this is one important justification. However, if we were solely motivated by that, things like astronomy would be funded a lot less than they are now: it’s interesting to know how old the universe is or what the distribution of star types is, but we’re not going to get cures for cancer from such studies (or, at least the expected number of cures per dollar is much lower for astronomy than other fields). Instead, basic science addresses the human desire to understand the world. Most people have questions: “what are these brown crawling things under the rock?”, “why doesn’t it get as cold at night when it’s cloudy?”, “why are leaves green but not bark?” Funding basic science gives us answers to basic questions about the world. I think that this is another justification for science funding in general.

  6. Pingback: Defending public investment in entomology « Myrmecos Blog

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