Sequester calls for smarter grant process, less venture capitalism

With the sequester in full effect, there are expected to be a number of cuts to new grants across many of the major government agencies, including the National Science Foundation.  

I. Big Cuts in Store

The NSF is expected to see a 5 percent cut, which will kill about 1,000 grants.  The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) are expected to take around a 5 percent cut as well.

Amid that kind of cutting one has to prioritize what stays and what goes.  I think most DailyTech readers would agree that research is very important.  As a part of the budget, science accounts for only a small portion of spending, versus public services (education, social security, welfare, roads, etc.) and defense spending.

National budget
Science is a pretty small percent of the total budget (a few percent).

But if research must be cut, we better cut wisely.  And to do that, we need to make a smarter grant process.

Some projects -- like particle accelerators or space travel -- may be expensive, but are very important.  Other projects clearly are cheaper, but questionable.

II. Duck Penises? Questionable Grants Come in Several Forms

Let's examine some questionable grants that have gained attention and what's wrong with them.

Grant: NSF SBIR-1152672
Amount: $516,000
This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)Phase II project is designed to commercialize a consumer self-serve, automated kiosk for the evaluation, buy back, and collection of used electronics directly from consumers.
Layman's terms:
It's an ATM that pays you cash for used electronics
What's wrong:
This is venture capitalism.  The government needs to be paying for the kind of research that industry figures are not interested in paying for, not investing in projects whose proprietors could get funding from industry sources.  This is better fodder for the Shark Tank than for NSF.

Grant: NSF SBIR-1014075/SBIR-1127567
Amount: $149,600 / $500,000 USD = $659,600 USD (total)
This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I project will develop software to prevent the manipulation of consumer reviews of websites and online businesses.

This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II project will develop software to automatically detect a broad spectrum of websites that are fraudulent or otherwise harmful to consumers. Much work has been done on specific software capable of detecting websites hosting malware or engaged in phishing. However, software does not yet exist which can detect a broader array of harmful websites, including those selling counterfeits, selling illegal drugs, and hosting weight-loss scams, to name just a few.
Layman's terms:
The project started as a database to compile consumer reviews from various platforms, trying to figure out a way to filter out automatically biased reviews.  Perhaps realizing the infeasibility of that goal, the project completely shifted directions to a publicly hosted blacklist for sites deemed as "scams". 
What's wrong:
The grant connects the dots questionably between online fraud statistics (which typically refers to spam, phishing, etc.) and fraudulent reviews (whose "damage" are not the direct subject of these statistics).  The second submission changes the purpose the site to a general fraud prevention site.  It claims this doesn't exist -- well it does (see SpamHaus).

Again, this is a (rather confused) venture capitalist project that shouldn't have received one grant, let alone two.

Grant: NSF SES-1056580 
Amount: $120,000 USD
School: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Our project aims to clarify how evidence is used to test cosmological theories that predict the existence of the Multiverse. Testing the predictions of recent cosmological theories has become a challenging and highly active topic at the cutting-edge of modern cosmology. Perhaps more than any discovery in recent scientific history, the mystery of dark energy has forced the scientific community to reconsider what constitutes a valid scientific theory. Such discoveries raise difficult questions at the boundary between astrophysics and the philosophy of science, which is precisely where this research project is located.
Layman's terms:
This work takes issue with alleged bias towards traditional physics theories, while seeking to chat about the controversial and widely disregarded multiverse theory.
What's wrong:
First, it's questionable to put this grant as a social sciences grant -- it appears to be a physics discussion.  Second, the multiverse theory while fascinating fodder for science fiction and comic books is widely disregarded as too poorly formulated/theorized to be sound research within our current understanding of the universe.  
Multiverse: Good for comics -- but grants? Questionable at best. [Image Source: DC Comics]

Maybe someday we'll get there, but better to shelve this kind of grant until then.

Grant:  NSF SES-0524539
Amount: $79,988 USD
School: Duke University
This project brings together social scientists and engineers to develop a predictive theory of social organization, as a conglomerate of mating flows that morph in time to flow more easily (people. goods, money, information). A team of Duke social scientists and engineers will explore a series of topics that will define a new research direction: the constructal theory of social dynamics. Examples are the multi-scale (organized) distribution of living settlements, the occurrence of multi-scale flow structure inside each settlement, 'development' as the relation between fast-flowing societies and advancement and wealth, migration patterns, and globalization. The team will organize a 2-year faculty/graduate student seminar with speakers from the US and abroad on social organization theory. The team will write the first papers on the constructal theory of social dynamics, and will define the research area that should be explored with greater force in the future. Funds are requested for the work of organizing the seminar, and for travel and lodging for the 12 speakers over the two years.
Layman's terms:
Somehow wants to assess the "big picture" of how resources are distributed... this would morph into a study on why some teams dominate the NCAA Basketball Tournament brackets, based on the size of winning athletes.
What's wrong:
This is actually pretty interesting research and did get published.  But the question is whether it is really worth spending taxpayer dollars on.  Couldn't a Duke University booster paid for this, maybe?

Grant:  NSF IOS-0920344
Amount: $384,949 USD
School: Yale University
Conflict between the sexes over control of fertilization is expected to be widespread among organisms, but its evolutionary consequences are still poorly understood particularly in vertebrate animals. Waterfowl have complex breeding systems that include female partner preferences based on elaborate male plumage and courtship display, and unsolicited reproductive attempts by males other than the female's chosen partner. Female ducks show resistance behaviors and anatomies that have coevolved with male coercion. Ducks are ideally suited to study the evolution of sexual conflict and the evolution of reproductive structures. 
Layman's terms:
The study looks at duck genitalia and mating habits.

What's wrong:
Again this work is interesting from a pure science perspective and the authors appear to be relatively productive.  But the question is whether it's appropriate to give a third of a million dollars to this kind of project in such tight fiscal times.  Maybe a smaller grant would have been appropriate, but this seems exorbitant given the societal impact of the research.

III. Three Steps Towards a Better Grant Process

Patrick Clemins, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) wrote in a recent report, "Ultimately, the decision as to what constitutes 'transformative' or 'potentially transformative' [research] should be left to the scientific community rather than Congress."

That is certainly true.  I think, though, that the current grant system does suffer some fundamental structural issues that get in the way of science though.

1. Remove Institutional Bias

Bigger name universities tend to get grants, even when the proposals sound more tenuous or appear to be in the wrong funding category.  A blind grant system, in which the author/college go unlisted, could help this.

2. Cut Venture Capitalism

Much of the SBIR grant system would be better shifted into the world of venture capitalism.  Good products will be funded, in most cases, while bad ones will perish.  But ultimately in times of federal belt-tightening it's undesirable to have the federal government essentially playing VC gambles with taxpayer dollars.

3. Look at the Big Picture

Duck penises may be fascinating to biology experts, but generally these research topics seem unlikely to yield significant societal progress.  One possible solution would be to assemble panels of five researchers from other fields to review the merits of a series of grants within a single field, ranking them from most important to least important.  Collate the results and kill the least important grant proposals.  This would help grants reflect their true importance, rather than niche interest.

By instituting changes #1 and #3 and then trimming the SBIR budget significantly, much of the damage done by the budget cuts would be absorbed.  The SBIR savings would minimize the cuts to pure research, while the other changes would make sure that much of the remaining cuts were made to proposals that were either bad (for various reasons) or less important.

Source: ArsTechnica

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