Science and the senator: missing the point about government waste

About to retire, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, M.D., has just released his 107-page 2014 Wastebook, a tabloid-type listing  of over a hundred wasteful government-funded projects. Coburn continues the tradition of the late William Proxmire, the Wisconsin senator who, more modestly, chose just one or two “Golden Fleeces” each year. 

Many objects of Coburn’s ire—agencies using paid “administrative leave” to isolate whistleblowers, vast misdirection of food-stamp money, for example—are right on target. But when it comes to science, he misses the point.

I’d like to think that Senator Coburn had studied each and every science project and singled out just those that deserve to be axed. Maybe, in a few cases. But mostly, he or his minions have simply looked at titles that seem silly. 

When it comes to science, Wastebook is entertainment, not information. But it isn’t harmless, because it distracts the citizenry from very real problems such as the funding of science by government monopoly and the cancerous growth of the administrative state.

First, the science. One particularly risible example is a project Wastebook calls “Synchronized swimming for sea monkeys.” It’s described a bit differently on the Caltech website: “Swimming Sea-Monkeys [brine shrimp] Reveal How Zooplankton May Help Drive Ocean Circulation.”

The project is trying to find out whether light-induced synchronous movements by the very large numbers of small creatures that fill our oceans (zooplankton) can affect ocean currents. Ocean currents play a role in climate, fishery, transport and a dozen other vital environmental properties. 

That might be important, mightn’t it? But the project sounds silly. So why bother, says Senator Coburn.

Had he lived a few hundred years ago, Coburn would undoubtedly have approved of attempts to do something really useful—like turn lead into gold. He would probably have disdained silliness like measuring how hot gun barrels get when they are being drilled, making rainbows with prisms, or counting different-colored pea flowers. Yet the gun-barrel-drilling led to thermodynamics, the rainbows to Isaac Newton’s Optics, and the pea flowers to genetics. The lead-into-gold thing? Well, alchemy didn’t work out so well…

Luckily, those endeavors were not funded by government. Indeed, much useful research is not funded by government—and that brings me to the real problems with government science funding, problems that go unmentioned by Wastebook.

Most biomedical research is funded by a monopoly—the National Institutes of Health. There are few alternatives. And competition is fierce: A research proposal—typically 50 or more pages of single-spaced text and tables—may have only a one-in-ten or less chance of success. Yet most researchers now depend on grants for salary and promotion.

Monopoly, plus the low payoff rate, means that scientists must be very careful not to offend anyone on a review panel where simple lack of enthusiasm is sufficient to kill a proposal. 

Bureaucracies demand accountability, a finished research product. Hence, grantees must publish if they want continued support.

But most real science involves failure and hazard—Humphry Davy in the early 1800s, for example, did hundreds of experiments before he confirmed the existence of sodium and potassium. He had little to publish for many years. Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity by accident. A grant proposal entitled “Random Explorations with Uranium and Photographic Plates” is not the sort of thing that attracts funding these days. 

If he can, the smart researcher proposes research he has already done, but not yet published, with all the details needed to convince critics. And he confines his work to a trench sufficiently narrow so as not to intrude too much on his competitors’ turf—they might be reviewing his proposal, after all. The result is research that is too often pedestrian, repetitive, and faithful to fashion.

The application and review process itself is also wasteful—not of money, but of something much more valuable: time. Most biomedical researchers now spend 50 to 70 percent of their time not doing science, but writing research grant applications. It is quite possible that in many low-cost areas, more real research would be done if federal support were cut to zero.

There are arguments about whether or not the government should be in the research-support business at all. But, unlike climate change, that really does seem to be a settled issue: we’re not quitting now.

Support should not be a monopoly, however. Competition is good, but it should be competition between programs, which allows for individual failure, not between individuals, which does not. An applicant should be able to submit his or her application to one of many overlapping review groups, which compete for funding based on what their grantees have found over several years. 

Finally, the science projects in Wastebook are miniscule—typically tens of thousands of dollars—compared to the millions and billions of serious waste it ignores. The real problem is elsewhere. 

The advent of the administrative state has led to whole departments and multiple agencies with overlapping responsibilities. This duplication is enormously costly in money and impenetrable complexity. Here’s just one example: 

GAO reported in March 2013 that federal drug abuse prevention and treatment programs are fragmented across 15 federal agencies. In fiscal year 2012, about $4.5 billion was allocated to these 15 agencies that administer 76 programs that are, in all or in part, intended to prevent or treat illicit drug use or abuse. 

Specifically, GAO reported that:

22 programs were drug abuse prevention programs, that is, programs that provide services, allocate funding, or allow for activities focused on discouraging the first-time use of controlled substances—specifically illicit drugs and the problematic use of alcohol—and encouraging those who have begun to use controlled substances to cease their use…(…and so on for many paragraphs. 

From the 2013 GAO Annual Report: Actions Needed To Reduce Fragmentation, Overlap, And Duplication And Achieve Other Financial Benefits. The report has sections on many other programs, from Agriculture to Training.)

It is beyond dispute that many, probably most, of these overlapping entities are unnecessary. Tabloid fun-pieces like Wastebook amuse and distract a chuckling populace, but do nothing to deal with the Leviathan in the room.

One final example: The IRS and VA scandals remind us that government workers now get bonuses. They are not selling anything; these can’t be sales bonuses. There is usually no way to measure how well most government employees are doing their job. Indeed, recent scandals suggest that bonuses are largely unrelated to performance or even legality.

So why are these folk getting bonuses at all? And government workers now tend to make more than comparable workers in the private sector, despite greater job security. How fair and efficient is that?

There’s much more waste to look at than silly-sounding-but-probably-useful science projects.  Government funding of science now increasingly favors unthreatening drudgery over real creativity. The administrative state and its self-serving practices grows without limit, even as its own agency finds serious mistakes. 

Perhaps Senator Coburn’s successor will find time to take a look at these problems. 

(Editor’s note: Professor Staddon discusses additional problems with science funding in Chapter 1 of his recent book The Malign Hand, McGraw-Hill, 2012).