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Senator Flake’s erroneous claim that the National Science Foundation funded a cheerleader study also ignores how federal grants support future scientists.

Senator Flake’s erroneous claim that the National Science Foundation funded a cheerleader study also ignores how federal grants support future scientists.

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Analysis: Senator’s attack on ‘cheerleading’ study obscures government’s role in training scientists

Senator Jeff Flake (R–AZ) says that the National Science Foundation (NSF) frittered away $1.1 million on an academic study of cheerleaders. But about the only thing that’s actually true in that previous sentence is the senator’s name.

This past Tuesday Flake released an 85-page report entitled Twenty Questions: Government studies that will leave you scratching your head. The report, which pokes fun at 20 studies funded by NSF, the National Institutes of Health, and other agencies, is the latest in a barrage of attacks from Republicans in Congress against individual federal grants.

Flake hopes the report will bolster his argument that federal agencies need “to make better decisions about how science money is spent.” Speaking to reporters covering the Capitol Hill rollout of the report, Flake wondered aloud: “Explain why, when we need research done—when we need a vaccine for Ebola or Zika—why are we spending money on cheerleaders?”

The fact is, NSF didn’t actually spend a million bucks to find out, as Flake put it, “Are cheerleaders more attractive in a squad?” (For more detail on the study and the grant, see below).

More importantly, perhaps, how NSF did spend the money illustrates an important point often lost in the sometimes highly partisan debates over government research spending: Most of those dollars go to educate the next generation of scientists. These students are trained in many disciplines and work on a wide array of projects—some of which might sound dubious to politicians. After graduation they use their knowledge to bolster the U.S. economy, improve public health, protect the nation from its enemies, and maintain U.S. global leadership in science. In short, while politicians focus on whether the government’s investment could lead to an economic blockbuster—a shot in the dark when it comes to basic research—a surer bet is that it will create more scientifically trained workers.

No cheerleaders in sight

Here’s the skinny on the paper and grant that Flake attacked. Edward Vul is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California (UC), San Diego, and the corresponding author of the paper. He’s also one of four co–principal investigators on the 2012 NSF grant that was aimed at developing “provably safe automotive cyber-physical systems (CPS).” In other words, Vul’s research is aimed at making self-driving cars safer by keeping humans in the loop.

Part of Vul’s research involves finding ways to anticipate driver errors—“so that the control system knows when to take over,” he says. His model of their behavior suggests that drivers “distort individual elements of a scene toward the average of all the elements in that scene.”

What does that have to do with cheerleaders? Vul explains that if his model “is a general description of perception, then it would predict that faces should appear more attractive in a group. … We called it the cheerleader effect."

The phrase comes from an episode of a popular television series, How I Met Your Mother, in which the main character opines on his dating experience. “The cheerleader effect is when a group of women seems hot, but only as a group,” says the character Barney Stinson, played by Neil Patrick Harris. “Just like with cheerleaders. They seem hot, but take each one individually: sled dogs.”

Vul wanted to test that idea before he joined researchers from UC Berkeley in submitting the CPS grant proposal to NSF. So he had a graduate student, Drew Walker, ask UC San Diego undergraduates to rate the attractiveness of hundreds of individuals, men and women, pictured both on their own and in a group. (In case you’re wondering, none was a cheerleader.)

For the record, Vul and Walker found a small effect—“enough to bump someone from the 49th to the 51st percentile of attractiveness,” they explain in an October 2013 UC San Diego press release announcing publication of the results in the Association for Psychological Science’s online journal. The word “cheerleader” isn’t part of the title of the paper, but it appears in the first line of the abstract. So it’s no surprise it received considerable media coverage.

Students first

Nearly 3 years later, the paper also caught the attention of Flake’s staff because it was listed as one of the research products of the 2012 NSF grant. In reality, however, Vul says Walker, the graduate student, never worked on the CPS grant, for which Vul received $120,000 over 3 years. (The rest of the grant went to teams at UC Berkeley.)

How the NSF money was actually spent arguably belies Flake’s suggestion of wasted federal dollars. More importantly, it shows that most federal research dollars actually support people, both the senior scientist on the grant and those working in his or her lab.

The “cheerleader” study cost the government about $4000, Vul estimates, the cost of conducting an experiment with human subjects and the computing time needed to analyze the results. He also drew a summer salary—$29,000 over 3 years—from the CPS grant.

The lion’s share—71%—of the grant helped to pay the salaries of two of his postdocs, Vul notes. And one of those postdocs, he points out, is now working for a company that has a contract with the U.S. Navy to improve human interfaces with submarines and underwater autonomous vehicles. That’s likely something that many members of Congress would cheer.

Vul does not currently have an NSF grant, but his lab is continuing to study how people perceive similarities in their environment. That work is being supported by Google, which has made a huge investment in self-driving cars.

Vul says he didn’t mind the barrage of media requests he fielded this week after Flake released his report. And he says he doesn’t regret using the eye-catching phrase in the 2013 study. “It makes it more likely that the media will notice it, and it helps the public understand what we did,” Vul says. “But I guess you also have to pay a price.”

Trivial investigation?

Of course, Flake and his staff could have learned many of these details by asking Vul (they didn’t), or the leaders of any of the 20 projects that he labels examples of “trivial, unnecessary, or duplicative experiments.” And he could have gotten the bigger picture by attending a hearing by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held the day after his 10 May press conference. The hearing focused on ways to improve the payoff of federally funded research, and lawmakers from both parties and witnesses agreed that perhaps the biggest benefit of such research is the skilled scientific workforce it creates.

“Government funds basic research, and it also produces the talent that industry needs to take these ideas and turn them into commercial products,” explained Jeannette Wing, corporate vice president for research at Microsoft and head of the company’s basic research labs. And a dearth of talent limits Microsoft’s ability to innovate, Wing said in response to a question from the committee’s chairman, Senator John Thune (R–SD). “We face a huge demand and a limited supply of people to fill those jobs,” she said.

One small footnote: Vul notes that his second postdoc supported by the CPS grant has taken a faculty position in India because U.S. visa rules require him to go back to his home country for a few years before trying to settle permanently in the United States.

Witnesses at the Senate hearing said that federal immigration and tax policies need to be changed to make it easier for such U.S-trained foreign scientists to stay in the country if they wish after earning their degrees. For Flake, advocating for such changes might be a better way to help federal research agencies get the biggest bang for their bucks than his current efforts to ferret out bogus examples of wasteful spending.