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.