U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D.-Mich.).
U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D.-Mich.).

Today, countries around the world are making critical investments in their own public research priorities, but the U.S. federal science and research budgets are stagnant or even shrinking, points out U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.). He thinks more investment is needed from the federal government.

At the same time, two U.S. Senators are blasting what they claim are wasteful funding of research projects, including agricultural projects. Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) has highlighted examples of what he considers wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars in a new report, "Federal Fumbles." And Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has issued his own report, “The Farce Awakens,” on what he considers wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars.

Both reports feature a list of federally funded projects including research supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Agriculture.

During the space race of the 1960s, America’s federal investment in research and development (R&D) reached nearly 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Federal investment is currently at a historic low of 0.78 percent. (These figures are documented in recent reports from the National Science Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in a recent article in Bloomberg Business.), notes Peters.

“If we want to keep the United States at the forefront of innovation, Congress must come together to strengthen our commitment to scientific research,” said Peters.

From weather prediction to hazard mitigation, geoscience research is essential to the well-being and prosperity of the United States and its citizens. To ensure our nation’s long-term prosperity, Congress must increase the federal government’s investment in R&D to 1 percent of GDP. This commitment should include a focus on increased federal support for basic research because it is an essential component of any innovation economy. Together with the private sector investment in R&D, our national investment will reach almost 3 percent of GDP, matching China’s path,” he continued.

As a wrap-up, he said, “Investments in basic research are a down payment on America’s future and the key to keeping our nation on the cutting edge of an increasingly competitive global economy. As the U.S. science and research community works to discover the next major scientific advancement, we in Congress must do our part by supporting and investing in their efforts to drive economic growth, unleash increased productivity, enhance our safety and security, and make the world a better place for future generations.”

“Peters is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and serves as the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness.

The two senators putting their list together about wasteful spending drew a response from the National Science Foundation which is close to what Peters is saying in wanting more investment, not cutting of investments. The title of the project cannot provide full understanding of what might be accomplished through basic research.

The letter to the two senators is as follows:

“The National Science Foundation (NSF) has been the backbone of America’s science and engineering research enterprise for more than sixty years. In fact, NSF is the only federal agency that supports all fields of fundamental science and engineering research and education.

“NSF supports cutting-edge research projects—many of which serve as bellwethers for solutions to the myriad complex issues facing society. NSF programs also traditionally integrate research and education, fast tracking innovation excellence via hands-on learning to train our next generation of researchers and innovators.

“Each year, NSF competitively awards thousands of grants that collectively advance our nation’s scientific capabilities and engage the talents of hundreds of thousands of researchers, postdoctoral fellows, technicians, teachers and students in every field of science and engineering. NSF is the primary source of federal funding for non-medical basic research, providing approximately 12,000 new awards annually.

“Through its merit review process, NSF ensures that proposals submitted are reviewed in a fair, competitive and in-depth manner. Competition for funding is intense, with only about one out of five proposals ultimately being approved. Each proposal submitted to NSF—including those deemed ‘wasteful’ and ‘out-of-touch’ in the ‘Federal Fumbles’ report (authored by Senator James Lankford)—is reviewed by science and engineering experts well-versed in their particular discipline or field of expertise. (Same reference to Senator Flake and his ‘Wastebook: The Farce Awakens’ report in a separate letter.)

“All proposals submitted to NSF are reviewed according to two merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Nearly every proposal is evaluated by a minimum of three independent reviewers consisting of scientists, engineers and educators who do not work at NSF or for the institution that employs the proposing researchers.

“On average, roughly 50,000 experts share the benefit of their knowledge and give their time to serve on review panels each year. NSF selects reviewers from the national pool of experts in each field, and their expert evaluations are confidential. NSF's merit review process is considered by some to be the "gold standard" of scientific review. Perhaps the best evidence of NSF’s success is the repeated replication of its model for discovery, education and innovation in nations around the globe.

“The results of this process—funding the best and brightest ideas through competitive merit review—have been profound. NSF-supported research has underpinned multitudinous discoveries—the Internet, Web browsers, Doppler radar, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, DNA fingerprinting, and bar codes—to name a few. These diverse examples underscore NSF’s significant contributions to our nation’s prosperity, health and well-being. NSF-funded discoveries have expanded our understanding of the world in which we live, led to life-saving medical advances, enhanced our national security, improved our everyday lives and yielded insights into the creation of the universe. Yet, a simple truth remains regarding fundamental scientific breakthroughs: Before these discoveries were made, these ideas, too, might have been considered novel or outside-of-the-box.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

“Sometimes, based solely on the title of the project, these ideas might have even seemed impractical or inappropriate at first glance. However, if one used project titles instead of merit review to make funding decisions, Google might not exist today. What was the original name of this search engine when it was funded as an NSF Digital Library project? BackRub. Technical titles might also easily be misconstrued by anyone but a scientist or engineer versed in technical jargon. For example, a NSF-funded award titled, “Implementation of Maximum Likelihood Decoding for Trellis Codes and Trellis Coded Modulation,” actually led to the development of an electronic chip that enables mobile communications worldwide. Who knew “trellis codes” was slang for what would became one of the most important technologies underpinning global wireless communication, an innovation vital to Qualcomm, a world leader in next-generation mobile technologies?

“These examples highlight the problem with discarding a project based solely on its title. Moreover, the ripple effect of fundamental research can rarely be anticipated. Fundamental social and economic research on “game theory” revolutionized the way our nation apportions its airwaves, resulting in $60 billion for the U.S. Treasury derived from spectrum auctions. In this particular case, the link between fundamental research and direct application was unclear—until it offered the Federal Communications Commission a viable solution for partitioning our wireless bandwidth.

“NSF's task of identifying and funding work at the frontiers of science and engineering requires keeping close track of research around the United States and the world; maintaining constant contact with the research community to advance the horizons of inquiry; and choosing the most promising people to conduct the research. The following summaries of the six projects highlighted in ‘Federal Fumbles’ (and ‘Wastebook: The Farce Awakens’) illustrate examples of promising NSF-funded research that were awarded support through the merit review process.”