Bad Idea from Public Officials
Readers may remember the Golden Fleece awards bestowed by former U.S. Senator William Proxmire in the 1970s and 1980s. The awards went to public officials or agencies who the senator felt were wasting public money. Some were humorous, some probably deserved, but many were an exercise of indignation regarding the title of a project rather than a thoughtful analysis of its real subject and deeper purpose.
The idea is back, and this time it’s aimed squarely at the National Science Foundation. U.S. Representatives Eric Cantor and Adrian Smith have launched the YouCut Citizen Review of Government project. Participants are encouraged to go to the NSF Web site and find research projects to which they object. The congressmen will then act on the results “to hold agencies accountable for how they spend your money.”
I wonder if our representatives have thought about the following questions:
- If a citizen finds a research grant “objectionable,” will it be defunded, or is this merely an exercise in expressing righteous anger?
- Do the reviewers have any demonstrable expertise in the area on which they are commenting, or are scholarly credentials and accomplishment no longer relevant in assessing scientific priorities?
- Will busy scientists be willing to give up their time in service to review panels if they know their advice is subject to public ridicule?
I suspect nothing constructive can come of this project. Worse, we risk witless discourse becoming the norm for our national conversation about important matters.