16 December 2010

Meritocracy and democracy. Also, money.

I’m late to the party on the fallacies in this Slate article about the lack of Republicans in science.

It is no secret that the ranks of scientists and engineers in the United States include dismal numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans, but few have remarked about another significantly underrepresented group: Republicans.

I’ll point it out, because nobody else seems to have done it: You can’t choose to be Hispanic or African-American; you’re pretty much stuck with it. You do choose what party you vote for. You can even change your mind about it. Multiple times.

So if people would like to see more scientists voting Republican, it would be helpful if... say... Republican politicians didn’t start initiatives asking people to identify waste in scientific agencies. Unsurprisingly, other researchers have not reacted well to a Republican effort to question the value of research supported by the National Science Foundation. I’m not even going to try to find other links; there are too many.

I agree that there could be reforms that would save money in research agencies. Did you know that there is a law preventing NSF grant holders from buying airplane tickets on a foreign airline if an American carrier is available, even if the cost of the foreign airline is lower? Pure protectionism.

Did you know there is no mechanism for grant holders to send unspent money back to NSF. Thus, if a researcher is very efficient and does the work under budget, it means nothing?

On a related topic, Dan Hind argued in New Scientist (registration required) that there’s a case to be made to let taxpayers have input into science funding:

If we are serious about science as a public good, we should give the public control over the ways in which some - and I stress “some” - of its money is spent.

I must admit, I am slightly intrigued. To listen to some politicians, the public would sink that money into space and dinosaurs.

Would people choose to sink money into cancer research and other projects that promised short term practical benefits? Or would there be a chance for some kinds of research to actually come out ahead, because it engages people? Remember that science stories, often long ones, are among the most emailed at the New York Times.

The current incarnation of the American Republican Party has way too much hate for smartypants to make it feel welcoming to scientists, but that doesn’t mean that scientists should reject everything they say.


Peregrin said...

It doesn't make much of a case for accepting what they say, either.

Zen said...

Agreed - but I don't think that was quite the point I was going for.