Why the GOP Hates the National Science Foundation

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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43 Responses to Why the GOP Hates the National Science Foundation

  1. Pingback: Political Science | Alan Dove, Ph.D.

  2. By reading some of the comments it seems that we are still living in the Dark Ages.

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  7. Wayne says:

    Steve, I was introduce to your blog when your “What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs Anyway?” article was highlighted in my news aggregator. Taking the facts at face value, I found the article informative, except for one anomaly, a weird, jarringly discordant comment about the Fox News audience. It was so out of place, given the context of the article, I found myself wondering about it for a few minutes following completion of the article. Then, when I began reading “Why the GOP Hates the National Science Foundation” the wording, the excessive use of quotes to denote sarcasm, the effortless defense of the truly indefensible, led me to believe that this article was sarcasm. When I finally grasped that you were serious, I realized that I had witnessed something new to me; an intelligent mind becoming a gooey mess of irrationality. Usually this transformation happens with less abandon and much more cleverness. The owner of the mind continues to appear rational, all the while expressing irrational mutterings like so much nasty CO2. But not you, Steve, you cast of the cloak of rationalality like a fleece hoodie at a hot beach. Here’s a suggestion for a new area of research at the National Academy of Science: “How the liberal dogma corrupts an otherwise cogent mind”.

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  10. Jason Jenkins says:

    While I agree with the substance of your article, when it comes to

    “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.”

    however fascinating that might be, I don’t see what interest the government and taxpayers have in whether people are dating and marrying people other than the ones they would have been dating or marrying in an off-line world. I measure interest in terms of what use the government would have for this information, what action or policy it could possibly lead to. In this case, I can’t conceive of any.

    If someone is fascinated enough to know about dating patterns, let him find equally fascinated people who freely choose to find that research over some other use to which they might have put their own money.

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    • Robert says:

      Hi… Researching… is searching… there are many avenues that may not lead to anything… that is the nature of search… like when I loose my keys… I may look in the kitchen. I may look in the bathroom. I may look under the couch. One of those avenues is fruitful. The other not. Is looking in my bathroom a fruitless search… (not in my case)… the NSF allows the search to be made… which in the end add to our lives. Look around you… look at the world you live in… these have been made possible by people searching for answers to meaningless scientific questions. We, as a country, have benefited greatly through the scientific explore of our world… we live in one of the most advanced countries in the world… this occurred through fearless exploration… and non of it is found in the bible… honestly… do you want your doctor.. who is a scientist… schooled in 3,000 yr old methods…

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  11. Nick Kenda says:

    This is an attack on the National Science Foundation and the American science as a whole. Its intent is to convince the US public (or at least its right wing) that US should significantly cut the funding to NSF and other similar programs.

    If it happens, it will only hurt the United States. US no longer has a monopoly on science. Brazil, China, EU, and many other places are growing in science. A few more attacks like these, and the tide will turn for US. First the prominent scientists from these countries, that would otherwise stay in US, will go back to their home countries. Next, it will start happening to US-born scientists, who will be forced to take positions abroad due to funding shortages. This is already happening today on a small scale, but reports like these will help making it commonplace. The final result will be that US will lose its #1 spot in science and technology.

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  12. DrFrozen says:

    One set of researchers published a response about this that was picked up on BoingBoing. Given the other comments here, researchers should band together and stand up to this nonsense.

    http://www.boingboing.net/2011/06/03/coburn-anti-nsf-repo.html

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  13. BrianDH says:

    I appreciate you taking the time to critique this load of crock — as far as I’m concerned, Coburn is blatantly wasting taxpayer dollars.

    However, personally I’d prefer the critique be limited to Coburn’s report. There’s no need to lambaste the GOP. I mean, sure, there are only a handful of current GOP politicians I find tolerable (I’m lowercase-’l’ libertarian [actually, more accurately, "classical liberal" -- but that's getting a tad arcane]).

    But, at best doing so weakens this piece’s sense of objectivity. And at worst, it makes it feel like just another partisan hack job, which likely either maintains or worsens existing polarization.

    Just my two cents.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      I certainly see your point, but the GOP has invited the critique by making an anti-science attitude a litmus test for its 2012 candidates — so much so that people like Newt Gingrich, who previously acknowledged the reality of climate change, now has to deny it and apologize for his previous position. No other American political party in my lifetime has ever made the denigration of science and scientists so central to their public stance. Thus criticizing Coburn for this nonsense without noting that it’s simply the GOP approach to science these days would be missing the forest for the tree.

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      • BrianDH says:

        Well, the way I look at it, for the foreseeable future the electorate is more or less trapped in a two-party system. And when the GOP is attacked en masse as anti-science (though this general phenomenon which applies to most any group and any issue), self-identified Republicans that affiliate themselves for other reasons but are open-minded on scientific issues are likely to feel hostility and dig in their heels, and seek confirmation (as in, confirmation bias) that “their side” is right.

        So I guess I would say, if you just mean this post as a vent, or perhaps as a deep public-choice theoretic analysis of why the GOP positions itself as it does with respect to science (I hesitate on “perhaps” because if you do, you need quite a bit more than “science is not with the program”), then you should go about as you were.

        But if you’re actually trying to influence an opinion or two, I’m not sure how effective this angle is.

        Have a good night (from my time zone).

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        • Steve Silberman says:

          I hear you Brian, thanks for making this point.

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  14. Adrian Bejan says:

    What Sen. Coburn wrote about my work is a total fabrication.

    I never had NSF funding to study “basketball”. The research article that was in the news (in March 2011) was a student term-paper, written during an evolutionary design course that I teach. It cost exactly ZERO dollars.

    Sen. Coburn’s voluminous and well paid staff never contacted me to ask why the press was writing about our research on the natural (rigid) design of hierarchy, with basketball rankings as one of several examples. So, who is not spending our taxpayers’ money wisely?

    Adrian Bejan
    J. A. Jones Distinguished Professor
    Duke University

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  15. Pingback: Need to pander to your base? Attack funny-sounding science funded by the NSF! | Marijuana & Ganja

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  17. Zen Faulkes says:

    The Los Angeles Times has an excellent article about why scientists often have to prove the obvious. It arises into some of the points and criticisms in Coburn’s report:

    http://www.latimes.com/health/la-sci-duh-20110529,0,3219165,full.story

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  18. Peter says:

    GOP n. a culture of waste, fraud, and mismanagement.

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  19. The core issue is the socialization of science funding leading to its corruption and bankruptcy as we are seeing with the socialized portions of mixed economies around the globe . Allocation of taken ( taxed ) resources by a centralized political class never as efficiently reflects the needs of the citizens as their making their own free marketplace choices .

    The perversion of “science” when monopolized by the State is nowhere better seen than in the profound idiocy of the manufactured fear of CO2 , the molecule which is the very basis of life on earth .

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    • Gregg says:

      There is no “manufactured fear of CO2″ except in your own mind, Bob. That is a strawman. No scientist is saying CO2 is intrinsically bad. However, when things are in excess, when they’re out of balance, they can be harmful. Seems like that used to be basic common sense that even Conservatives and Republicans could understand. The water molecule is “good” too, but TOO MUCH or TOO LITTLE H2O can be bad. Likewise, TOO MUCH CO2 can be harmful. Why is this so difficult for you to comprehend?

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  20. Cathi J Gorman says:

    I won’t argue with you over your blog; obviously you have carefully made your opionion and have no intention on backing down on GOP squashing as the boogieman for all evils and unenlightened and an example of the informned and educated (by extraction Dems)as the good guys, I simply think your political views are far too simplistic of the broad complexity of life in the political arena. I think that’s our problem today. we lump everyone with either ‘them’ or ‘us’ and it’s just not that easy. I watch Fox news not for their special programs; which do have some leading conservative talkhosts, but for their news. They really are, in their news reporting, fair and balanced. They don’t shovel into your mouth what they want you to hear, or what you have been paid to say, in crisis areas they are almost always the first to put someone on the scene with “ALL” the facts known at the time, not just a selective few turned out by the politics of their newstations owners. At times they have critized their own, and times others; but I have found them mainly spot on with the news, just letting you see what’s happening and not attempting to creat a commentary at the same time. Most who dissagree “dismiss” the popularity of these programs (FOX News is the #1 newstation right now) by ‘implying’ the rest of America is too weakminded to know whats going on or have been brainwashed. I assure you, that isn’t the case, I am a scientist, and so are many of my friends who watch FOX news. We like just the facts and leave it up to us to draw our conclusions. And so we do. Argue this subject all you want; the main catylist for scientific advancement in the last 50 years or so has been the space program. Although very expensive, and certainly in need of some oversight, We are sinply abandoning our dreams of going to space. SO MANY products and jobs have been created from this program, I don’t even have room to list them all here. Memory foam was developed for astronauts as were freeze dried foods. Techniques used to train astronauts has passed into the public sector training airliner captains. The final coffin nail is that this gave Americans a clear goal, something to dream of, a lofty goal. The destruction of our space program has left us as a second rate power that cannot be expected to create much of anything.

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    • Gregg says:

      Cathi, where are the Republicans who are leading advocates for basic research and for the space program? And by the way, basic, undirected research led to many of the advances in the space program. You need both kinds of research.

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    • slpage says:

      I find it amusing that conservatives are so quick to point out that Fox is the #1 news station.

      They leave out a very basic and very important piece of information – Fox is the #1 CABLE news station. The CBS evening news – all 30 minutes of it – gets approximately 6 million viewers a night, the lowest of the broadcast networks news shows. Fox got itself in a tizzy when Beck’s program got 3 million one time. Fox’s top rated show is O’Reilly, which is not even a news show, which typically gets ~2.8 million viewers.

      Oh – I should also mention that in addition to CBS news, there is also the NBC evening news (~ 9 million) and the ABC evening news (~8 million). My lib’ral math makes that 23 million vs. less than 3 million.

      No wonder conservatives hate science – they can’t even handle basic math.

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  21. chili palmer says:

    Coburn is as mockable as the rest, but it is standard with massive bureaucracies that no one ever gets fired and has cradle to grave security. ‘Hating’ science isn’t the issue, nor is the fact that mistakes are made and money lost in all walks of life. The problem with massive cash depots like NSF is there’s no accountability for the tax dollars forcibly removed from US citizens to pay for all this. That money is what we earned in exchange for giving our finite and precious time. It means something to some of us. There is no one invested in fixing problems like those at NSF. A 2009 article detailed how high level personnel at NSF spent enormous amounts of time viewing porn on the job instead of working (mostly during Geo. Bush term). No one was fired. It could have been cartoons, the point is personnel were in no position to decide who should receive billions in US tax dollars for ‘science.’ The inspector at the time said, “We anticipate a significant decline in investigative recoveries and prosecutions in coming years as a direct result” of untangling personnel problems at NSF.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Sorry, Chili, despite your half-hearted statement at the beginning about “mocking” Colburn, your argument is so deep inside the terms set by Colburn and his ilk that I’m not sure why you’d want to mock the senator rather than send him a dozen roses. The NSF’s annual budget is a tiny fraction of the Pentagon’s, which is famously ridden with mind-boggling cost overruns, mismanagement, and waste that cost taxpayers billions of dollars a year, but if look at Coburn’s list of oversight reports like the one on the NSF, you’ll quickly notice that the senator’s favorite targets happen to be the GOP’s perennial whipping dogs: aid to the poor, the Department of Justice, an annual AIDS conference, and the President’s health reform program. I also don’t define tax as a form of theft, as you do. That 2009 porn report you cite was another overblown obsession of Coburn’s; and your snide quotation marks around the word “science” means that you’ve already bought into the senator’s ridicule of the agency and have a very limited idea of what the NSF actually does. I’m not interested in “mocking” Coburn — I’m interested in exposing him as a fraud with an ideological agenda that goes far beyond controlling cost overruns at the NSF.

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  22. drZillian says:

    Someone should look at wasteful spending at the DoD. Here’s a video of the navy shooting at two 30k engines with a laser http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rzr7dD-4wk&feature=related

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  23. Scott says:

    From the comments here, we all think it’s ok to just waste $13,000 – $58,000? I’m all for research, but some of this stuff is wasting our tax dollars. We are operating at a deficit. It’s a mathematical fact. I would have a hard time justifying to my kids that they should owe more money or have their savings devalued because some scientists needed to use tax payer dollars for their skinny dipping or jello wrestling activities. You can say it’s only a little amount of money, but really isn’t it more the principal? Government employees should be held to a much higher standard. Everyone is paying them. Instead of wasting it, they could have cut have from their funds.

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    • Zen Faulkes says:

      Scott: When you run a business, not everything on the shelves turns a profit. The stuff that does fly off the shelves ends up subsidizing the rest. Research is kind of similar; some investments don’t yield the returns you hoped for.

      While people can point to projects that failed, we can also point to projects that succeeded. The US government invested in one project to the tune of $3.8 billion dollars, which generated about $49 billion in tax revenue (see here.

      Investing in research may mean your kid will owe less money rather than more.

      As for the wrestling incident, the report does mention that the wrestling incident was done on people’s spare time (which I believe even government employees are still allowed to have), so whether it “cost” anything in tax dollars is not clear. The report also says that the organizer of wrestling event was fired, which indicates that people were held accountable.

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  24. Pingback: Attacks on science and Coburn’s ignorance | The Tightrope

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  26. Zen Faulkes says:

    David Brin has similarly observed that there is a clear pattern of not just attacking science, but all professions and expertise except a select few:

    http://open.salon.com/blog/david_brin/2011/01/27/things_obama_did_not_have_to_say_-_but_said_anyway

    P.S. – Thanks for the link! Go shrimp!

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  27. Holly says:

    Thanks, Steve, for so eloquently speaking out in defense of science!

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  28. “Ultimately it comes down to PR. Scientists need to do a better job of explaining their research in a way that shows its true relevance. ”

    I bet we could if we had half as much money as the Republican lobby gets to produce garbage like this.

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  29. Pingback: Why the GOP Hates the National Science Foundation – PLoS Blogs (blog) | Conservatives for America

  30. Ultimately it comes down to PR. Scientists need to do a better job of explaining their research in a way that shows its true relevance. Especially when they known that hostile legislators and media will twist things if they don’t.

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    • Karen James says:

      We want to, believe me. The hard part is getting our hands on a megaphone.

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      • slpage says:

        But then you we will be accused of wasting taxpayer money lobbying for our own jobs….

        I’d like to see a report on how faith-based programs waste taxpayer money, or how tax cuts for the rich do not actually pay off like advocates claim.

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  31. @DrRubidium says:

    Fantastic post! I hope science savvy legislators, in addition to scientists and science writers, come out with rebuttals.

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