When it comes to assessing the value of federally funded social science research, one congressman’s meat is apparently another’s poison.
In March 2013, social psychologist Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, Columbus, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives’ panel that funds the National Science Foundation (NSF). Bushman had co-chaired an NSF workshop on the causes of youth violence convened in the wake of the deadly school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. And Representative Frank Wolf (R–VA), who leads the spending panel and who asked NSF to hold the workshop, was eager to hear Bushman summarize its findings and discuss this pressing social problem.
Last week, a second congressional panel also singled out Bushman’s work. But instead of making Bushman the star witness at a hearing, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chair of the House science committee, subjected him to ridicule. To be precise, Smith put a 2010 NSF grant to Bushman for research on self-control of aggression on a list of 11 NSF awards that Smith regards as a waste of taxpayer dollars. The new cohort of grants, going back as far as 5 years, join 47 others that the science committee has flagged in a running dispute with NSF over how it manages its $7-billion-a-year budget.
The fight has rekindled the age-old question of how to assess the value of basic research. Most scientists say that peer review—using experts in a particular field—offers the best way to judge both the scientific merit and the societal value of a piece of fundamental research. And they object when politicians substitute their own judgment. But Smith says he’s simply doing his job, questioning research that seems to him silly, obvious, or of low priority to society.
How Smith compiles his hit list is a burning question for NSF watchers. Smith has offered no detailed explanation. But in Bushman’s case, there is some pretty strong circumstantial evidence of how it came to Smith’s attention. An October report by retiring Senator Tom Coburn (R–OK), called Wastebook 2014, included Bushman’s $331,000 NSF grant on factors that lead to aggression and how to control those feelings. Within days the Republican National Committee had named the grant one of the “Five Most Absurd Spending Items” in Coburn’s compendium of “wasteful” federal projects, which include the International Space Station and administrative leave for federal employees.
Conservative bloggers have attacked Bushman’s previous research on how biblical passages can make people behave more aggressively after reading stories of “God-sanctioned violence.” And Bushman himself faced some pointed questions about that research from some members of the House spending panel during his 2013 appearance, although he says Wolf “was very supportive.”
Bushman wasn’t aware that his grant was on Smith’s latest list, he told ScienceInsider. But he’s not surprised. He sees himself as a “myth buster,” and his website describes how he’s overturned some conventional wisdom, including the claims that “violent media have a trivial effect on aggression, venting anger reduces aggression, violent people suffer from low self-esteem, violence and sex sell products, [and] warning labels reduce audience size.”
Researchers have an obligation to question such “common sense” beliefs, Bushman argues. “We can’t rely on common sense because it’s not the same for everybody, it can be contradictory—‘birds of a feather flock together, but opposites attract,’ for instance—and it can lead us astray. Common sense is not the acid test; that’s what research is for.”
Bushman says he stands by his research. And community leaders offended by Smith’s criticism of another NSF grant are also fighting back. On 21 October, Smith joined a chorus of conservative bloggers and Republican legislators in attacking a $920,000 grant to Indiana University to study the dissemination of information on Twitter. But this week several computer science organizations wrote to Smith defending the so-called Truthy project.
“We are dismayed by recent characterizations and misplaced criticisms” of the research, they said in a 4 November letter to the chair and the panel’s top Democrat, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX). Understanding how social networks operate is a valid research topic and can also help law enforcement officials and the U.S. military do their jobs, the letter points out.
Smith said last month that the committee was “investigating” the grant. But it did not appear on the 29 October request list that contained Bushman’s grant. A committee representative told ScienceInsider on Wednesday that “we’re collecting information preparatory to submitting a separate request to NSF about the Truthy project.” With that in mind, the computing groups offered Smith their assistance as “subject-matter experts to help guide your investigation.”
(Click here for an updated spreadsheet of all NSF grants requested by Smith.)
*Update, 10 November, 3:17 p.m.: Today the House science committee asked the National Science Foundation for all information relating to a grant awarded in 2011 to Indiana University researchers. In a letter to NSF Director France Córdova, the committee’s chair, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), says the so-called Truthy project “was intended to create standards for online political discussion” and that researchers have “proudly described how the web service targeted conservative social media messages.” The researchers say that critics have repeatedly misrepresented the project, that their work is not political, and that it does not restrict free speech.
Also today, the Association of American Universities (AAU) blasted the science committee’s tactics. A statement by the group’s board of directors says the ongoing review of some 60 grants “is having a destructive effect on NSF and on the merit review process that is designed to fund the best research and to remove those decisions from the political process.” If the committee persists, says the AAU board, its members “owe it to the American public to say clearly what they are doing: substituting their judgment for the expertise of scientists on the vital question of what research the United States should support.”