Why the GOP Hates the National Science Foundation

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Senator Tom Coburn

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) registers disapproval of NSF-sponsored Jell-O wrestling on the taxpayers' dime

Yesterday in Washington, amid great fanfare, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, released a 73-page report called The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope. The report – deemed “scathing” in an “exclusive” by ABC News, and widely touted by other news organizations, particularly those owned by Rupert Murdoch — purported to expose a culture of waste, fraud, and mismanagement at the NSF.

“This report identifies over $3 billion in mismanagement at NSF,” the authors intoned ominously. “This includes tens of millions of dollars spent on questionable studies, excessive amounts of expired funds that have not been returned to the Treasury, inadequate contracting practices that unnecessarily increase costs, and a lack of metrics to demonstrate results.”

This sounds like a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money in a time of fiscal belt-tightening, and the type of “studies” cited by the report sound dubious indeed, including research into “How to ride a bike; When did dogs became man’s best friend; If political views are genetically pre-determined; How to improve the quality of wine; Do boys like to play with trucks and girls like to play with dolls.”

Three of the most egregious sounding items in Coburn’s report are described as a study in which a “scientist put shrimp on a tiny treadmill to determine if sickness impaired the mobility of the crustaceans,” an effort to design robots capable of folding laundry, and an outbreak of “jello (sic) wrestling in Antarctica at the NSF research station McMurdo station.” The Senator and his team of fiscal watchdogs helpfully included a grotesque snapshot of the Jell-O incident, which looks like it was cut and pasted from some other Congressional report on the menace of online pornography.

Jell-O wrestling at McMurdo Station

Actual picture and caption from Coburn's NSF report

Surely there is waste and mismanagement at the NSF, as there is at any large organization staffed by human beings, though even allegedly LOL-worthy studies of ailing shrimp can yield results that inform the fate of fisheries that provide food and jobs for millions of people. Many outlets in the mainstream media and the right-wing blogosphere dutifully mocked the alleged absurdities detailed in the report, complete with the inevitable photos of sick shrimp on treadmills (also furnished by Senator Coburn’s office) and Jell-O swingers partying at the South Pole in this year’s installment of a recurring GOP series that you might call Scientists Gone Wild – a phrase that actually appears as a headline in Coburn’s report. (“This science isn’t just weird, it’s expensive!” gushed Murdoch’s New York Post.)

Highlights of the 2008 version of the same partisan show included John McCain and Sarah Palin — then running for the highest offices in the land — fulminating about earmarks for “fruit fly research in Paris, France,” with Palin throwing in a plucky “I kid you not!” to express her taxpayer’s righteous indignation.

Never mind that thousands of world-changing breakthroughs in health and basic science have resulted from studying Drosophila, and that the specific research Palin was ridiculing was focused on proteins in the brain called neurexins that may play a role in neural dysfunction in autism. Never mind that improving care for kids with developmental disabilities (such as autism and Down’s syndrome) is allegedly one of the causes dearest to the heart of Palin, who is the mother of a kid with Down’s syndrome, and has just announced her candidacy for the presidency of the United States.  Her logic is not terribly profound: If government-funded scientists are behind these fruit-fly antics in “Paris, France,” the science must be fruity indeed.

Never mind that the NSF funds thousands of studies a year in basic science, engineering, medicine, climate, physics, and an impressive variety of other fields, training the next generation of American scientists to make the next round of world-changing breakthroughs. You’d hardly know that from reading Coburn’s broad-brushed tarring of the agency, which includes an image of an internal warning from the agency to its evidently rosy-palmed staff (“Stop Surfing Porn!”) and this unflattering portrait:

One senior executive spent at least 331 days looking at pornography on his government computer and chatting online with nude or partially clad women – costing the taxpayers between $13,800 and $58,000. When caught, the NSF official retired but defended himself by suggesting he visited the porn sites to provide a living to poor overseas women. The senior executive explained “that these young women are from poor countries and need to make money to help their parents and this site helps them do that.”

That’s a little Rembrandt right there, sketched out in high GOP style: The arrogant “senior executive,” puffed up with liberal notions of helping the poor and downtrodden, pissing away Joe the Plumber’s hard-earned paychecks by chatting on teh Internets with not only nude but “partially-clad” women. Why the additional photographic detail? Because the Senator from Oklahoma wants his readers to see the scanty lingerie, as well as the little trickle of drool issuing from the lips of this fatuous, condescending senior executive at the Ministry of Silly Science.

The problem is that, as with most GOP initiatives, the closer you look, the more the worldview of Coburn’s report seems deliberately and blatantly skewed in ways that support overlapping GOP narratives. One of the wastes of hard-earned tax money described in Coburn’s report is described as “a study on whether online dating site users are racist in their dating habits.” Well, that sounds PC enough to make any red-meat Republican senator’s blood boil, raising the specter of egghead academics sponsored by Obama’s nanny state spending their expensive hours scrutinizing the kinks of OKCupid habitués.

Predictably, Coburn’s synopsis of this research — led by Andrew Fiore and Coye Cheshire at the UC Berkeley School of Information — is as superficial as McCain’s crusade against Drosophila research turned out to be. The scope of the research in question was not just determining whether or not dating sites are infested with potential KKK members, but how the advent of social media is affecting awareness of race in social interactions. In an email to me, Fiore explained:

The key question our study examined is whether we perceive people online in the same way as we do offline.  What if interpersonal perception is different enough online that we prefer different types of people than we would if we met them in an offline context? Where the choice of romantic partners is concerned, the implications are significant: People may be meeting, marrying, and having children with different types of partners than they would have chosen had these mediating technologies not been available.

Considering the sheer number of people who search for romantic partners and spouses online these days (one-third of all couples surveyed by researchers at Stanford and the City University of New York in 2009 met online; I’m happily married to a science teacher I met on Usenet 16 years ago), the changing racial dynamics of these interactions seem worthy of investigation, not mere fodder for easy ridicule.

I found it interesting that my call to Berkeley researcher Coye Cheshire yesterday was the first he’d heard of the Senator’s report, though his study is cited as a particularly egregious example of NSF mismanagement; an email from one of the Senator’s interns might have yielded additional perspective on the research.

But that’s, like, looking for “data” that can only cause trouble. The truth is, the current incarnation of the GOP, frozen in its pose of perpetually indignant outrage, doesn’t want additional perspective, more data and nuance, and — Heaven forbid — dissenting voices. The impulse to marginalize, condemn, ridicule, and finally choke off dissenting voices is not only what’s behind Senator Coburn’s war on the NSF, it’s behind the GOP-sponsored culture war that has sucked much of the oxygen out of the national discourse for more than a decade now.

Republicans don’t like science and scientists because they are sources of data that are independent of GOP-approved propaganda mills like Fox News. Pesky scientists and academics are always popping up to dispute the Roger Ailes-approved buzz-quote of the day — on climate change, on health care, on the effects of poverty on the rapidly evaporating middle class, on the diversity of American families, and on the importance of funding basic research instead of commercially-driven ventures constrained by short-term considerations like ROI.

Today’s GOP has a visceral distrust of scientists for the same reason that it has a visceral distrust of the “lamestream media” (particularly deeply reported news organizations like The New York Times), teachers, organized labor, regulatory agencies, National Public Radio, and protest movements that are have not been astroturfed for Fox News’ cameras by Koch Industries: They’re not with the program, whatever this week’s program might be — more windfalls to Big Oil, justifying torture, or floating amendments to officially brand gay people as second-class citizens.

Science, you could say, has a built-in left-wing bias, because it does not appeal to simplistic notions of God, country, tribal supremacy, or any of the other lesser angels of our nature that the GOP finds handy for its get-out-the-angry-vote drives. (The backers of a spectacularly mean-spirited effort to put a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the 2012 ballot in Minnesota — despite the fact that marriage equality is already illegal in that stateadmitted that fundraising concerns were a motivating force in ramming the bigoted amendment through the House at the last minute, even against the wishes of Republicans in districts that are open-minded about marriage equality.)

In his introduction to the report, Senator Coburn — solemnly describing himself as a “practicing physician and two-time cancer survivor” — declares his “very personal appreciation for the benefits of scientific research,” before going on to paint President Obama as a budget-busting liberal heaving millions of scarce tax dollars toward putting sick shrimp on treadmills, analyzing the dynamics of FarmVille on Facebook, and hosting Jell-O-fueled orgies for scientists at the South Pole.

The message of Coburn’s report is the message of Sarah Palin’s slams against the media is the message of the right-wing blogosphere’s mockery of climate scientists is the message of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s attacks on labor is the message of Maggie Gallagher’s expensive war on gay couples who want to get married: These alleged “experts” don’t really know anything. Not only that, they think you’re stupid. They claim to be independent and objective, but in reality, they’re corrupt, self-interested, and purely partisan. They’re making fools of American taxpayers while indulging their liberal — indeed, sinful — excesses in a time when “common sense” Republicans are prescribing drastic measures to scale down the national debt, like, oh, say, demolishing Medicare, smashing labor unions, defunding Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio, and shredding social safety nets.

(Never mind that the GOP added billions if not trillions of dollars to the national debt by launching a war in Iraq on the phony premise that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling Weapons of Mass Destruction in the desert.)

Whatever you do, don’t look at the data. Keep your eye on the sick shrimp on the treadmills, the towel-folding robots, and the Jell-O wrestlers at McMurdo station.

Sick shrimp on a treadmill

Sick shrimp on a treadmill

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