Tuesday, November 15, 2011

EXCUSE ME! Your Microscope Is Out of Focus


By Keith McDowell

So how many hours a day do you spend on social networking? Do you tweet, text, or use email services? How many computers, tablets, cellphones, and other wireless devices do you own? Have you recently updated your Facebook and LinkedIn profiles or added new “friends” and connections? Let’s face it folks. Social networking in all its various forms is an exploding new phenomenon, rapidly penetrating all levels of society and creating new channels of rapid communication. Does anyone doubt that the movement “Occupy Wall Street” or the occurrence of “flash mobs” would exist without social networking?

But is “social networking” something that should be studied, researched, and understood through funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF)? Or should such research be assigned a “low priority” having little or no benefit for society and America. How about understanding terrorist crowdsourcing and other cyber threats to national security played out using social networking? Are they not important subjects to be understood?

And then there is the ever present fruit fly – a real irritant to social conservatives and those who see waste in the federal funding of research. Does anyone really care whether the design of fruit fly genitalia affects their ability to “hook up” and copulate? Of course, it’s not a topic that keeps me awake at night, absent a fruit fly infestation in my home. But I respect the judgment of experts in the field that such research is important.  As Forrest Gump said about a box of chocolates: “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Let’s be clear. Picking winners or losers in advance in the game of discovery and innovation is mostly a waste of time. It’s not an issue of defunding “whimsical” research, whatever that is. And who determines the winners in advance? What are the criteria? Would you have picked social networking as a multi-billion dollar industry before the fact?

Unfortunately, some people in America choose to take legitimate concerns about what research should be funded, what metrics should be used, whether the processes currently used are appropriate and sufficient, whether waste and fraud are rampant or not, and what is America’s strategic endgame and attempt to use the scientific illiteracy of many Americans coupled with extreme and often counterfactual social conservatism to achieve political gains at the expense of discovery and innovation in America. Such an exercise was recently conducted by Senator Tom A. Coburn in his report of April 2011 entitled The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope.

Americans including me support a balanced budget. But is doing “more with less” to the point of starvation a realistic and appropriate goal for our country, especially in the era of global competition? Let’s examine the facts and the history that led to the Coburn Report.

Recognizing that America gives every indication of falling behind in the game of competition in the global marketplace including the loss of jobs, Congress passed the America COMPETES Act (Public Law 110-69) calling for a doubling of NSF funding over seven years. Passage of the Act was the culmination of many studies including Rising Above the Gathering Storm and a clarion call from leadership in nearly all segments of American society. But according to the Coburn Report, the “dramatic increase in spending passed with little debate or dissent.”

The report further challenges whether increasing the NSF budget “to bolster our economy” is a magic bullet. Instead, the report purports to document widespread fraud, waste and abuse of the taxpayer dollar through funding of wasteful and controversial projects of limited scientific benefit, excessive amounts of expired funds, inadequate contracting practices, lack of accountability metrics, excessive funding of conference and related travel, duplicative funding with other government agencies, inappropriate behaviors, and lack of transformative research, to name some of the report’s assertions. These are serious charges and they must be taken seriously and dealt with appropriately independent of one’s political persuasion or the underlying belief system and principles that support the characterization and interpretation of the facts in the Coburn Report.

While I applaud Senator Coburn for engaging the debate, I strongly and emphatically disagree with the both the specifics and the intent of the report’s recommendations. Implementation of the recommendations as structured will play only at the margins and will assuredly dampen both discovery and innovation in America. But we have some common ground! From my perspective, Coburn and his staff put the NSF under a microscope that was out of focus. So let’s review the recommendations of the Coburn Report and bring those recommendations properly into focus.

Establish Clear Guidelines for What Constitutes “Transformative” and “Potentially Transformative” Science: Good luck with such guidelines! Picking winners before the fact of becoming transformative is a useless exercise. I repeat: would you have chosen social networking as a winner? I put little stock in those who say they know it when they see it before the actual outcome. Discovery and innovation are mostly serendipitous exercises where the accumulation of sweat equity through the funding of putative non-transformative research and even “whimsical” research is essential. Making this argument is not to say that we should not have targeted research. Grand challenge research must be an essential part of the portfolio of funding and our Nation’s discovery and innovation strategic plan. But we should not eliminate or throttle exploratory research and innovation based on political or personal bias. Furthermore, the implied threat to be transformative, creative, innovative, or ELSE never works. The user-friendly mantra of Go Forth and Innovate! is the appropriate strategy.

Set Clear Metrics to Measure Success and Standards to Ensure Accountability: The STAR METRICS program is a worthy federal attempt to achieve this desired outcome and is supported by the Coburn Report and by the university community. Accountability has always been an integral part of the federal funding process. But one must remember that discoveries and innovations are not part of a programmed assembly line easily amenable to accounting and audit in the traditional sense. The debate as to what constitutes appropriate metrics for both research and innovation is ongoing and lively. It is by no means a settled matter as emphasis on the commercialization of university research and the need for a growth in American jobs dominates the discussion.

Eliminate NSF’s Social, Behavorial, and Economics (SBE) Directorate: Simple response: emphatically NO! We live in a world dominated by convergence and network science where What Is Easy Has Been Done. Transformative discovery and innovation will occur at the boundaries and overlap of the physical, biological, and social dimensions of our universe. Enough said on this recommendation!

Consolidate the Directorate for Education & Human Resources: With at least 100 STEM education programs and maybe as many as 200 spread across numerous federal agencies, we have a problem that needs immediate attention. I defer the reader to Go Forth and Innovate! for a full and complete discussion of this recommendation from my perspective. Suffice it to say that I agree with the Coburn Report that we must come to terms with which federal agency should take the lead in funding the STEM education agenda for America.

Use it or Lose It: NSF Should Better Manage Resources It Can No Longer Spend or Does Not Need and Immediately Return $1.7 Billion of Unspent, Expired Funds It Currently Holds: The Coburn Report represents that “[a]pproximately 47 percent of the 151,000 final and annual project reports required in the past 5 years were submitted late or not at all.” Furthermore, “The agency’s record of failing to place an emphasis on closing out expired grants and returning unused funds to the United States Treasury raises question [sic] about the overall fiscal management of the agency.” The Coburn Report concludes that “grant oversight remains as an ongoing management challenge at NSF.” I agree! There is no excuse for failing to file a final report and reprobates and their institutions should be punished in some manner. But to adopt the rather simplistic characterization of this issue as taken by the Coburn Report is not the answer. As one who has managed multi-million dollar grants, I can assure the public that fiscal management of grant dollars is a challenge complicated by personnel timeline management, academic schedules and a plethora of other complex factors such as on time delivery of needed and purchased equipment and the effect on completing the research project. NSF must have the ability to be flexible in this regard and to carry over unspent funds. The notion that NSF has $1.7 billion in available funds is na├»ve at best.

Reduce Duplication: Develop a Strategic Plan to Streamline Federal Research and Development: I agree in principle. We need a national debate about how we fund R&D and innovation in order to form a better strategic plan. However, duplication in and off itself is chump change in the larger arena and should not be the dominant factor.

Provide the NSF Inspector General Additional Resources and Place a Greater Emphasis on the Office of Inspector General’s Findings: From my experience, NSF and academe place a great deal of emphasis on the OIG’s findings. Some would argue we place an obsessive emphasis on them. Indeed, over the past decade or two, a vast bureaucracy has grown up to deal with the growth of federal rules and regulations and their interpretation. It has become a hyper-technical world where subtle nuances of the meaning of words make a difference. Do we really want further government intrusion into the business of federal funding of research? At some point, a proper cost-benefit balance must be struck. I submit we’ve already reached and perhaps surpassed that point. Further growth in the “accountability culture” will only stifle discovery and innovation and not achieve the desired end result. In that sense, I support the “deregulation” platform propounded in the political arena. But if more “resources” are to be poured into the OIG, I have a simple request. Hire the best and the brightest at a competitive salary. Far too often, university professionals sit across the table from OIG auditors and inspectors who would do well auditing Walmart but know almost nothing about the complexities of the federal funding of research.

Senator Coburn, sharpen the focus on your microscope and take out the fuzziness caused by political and personal bias. Starving discovery and innovation in America because of perceived and even real issues at the National Science Foundation are not the answer. Nor is highlighting and listing research programs that don’t fit your worldview. It’s time to move past an obsession and annoyance with fruit fly research and join with those of all persuasions to forge and craft a new strategic plan for R&D and innovation in America. 

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