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Is the GOP Waging a War on Science?

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Jeff Nesbit was the director of public affairs for two prominent federal science agencies. This article was adapted from one that first appeared in U.S. News & World Report. Nesbit contributed the article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, have gone out of their way in recent months to say that they’re not waging a “war on science.” They just want the National Science Foundation to stop funding frivolous “pet projects” with funny-sounding titles.     “Americans are tired of writing a blank check for researchers’ pet projects,” Smith wrote in The Hill last November, responding to criticism of his legislation that would require NSF to only fund research that was “in the national interest.”

Smith, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Paul, a leading GOP presidential contender, defend their efforts to require NSF to prove that all of their grants are in the national interest as nothing more than a way to make sure that the “best science” is funded – not to gut the scientific peer-review process.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, the federal government has awarded taxpayer dollars toward research that few Americans would consider to be in the national interest,” they wrote in Politico on Jan. 12. “Congress has a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and are focused on national priorities. In the new Congress, Republicans, the party of limited government, should propose legislation to eliminate the funding of wasteful projects—and focus on smart investments instead.”

Their view is that marginal research based on “pet projects” should be replaced with other, better research in the national interest – which Congress would define for the scientific community. “To remain a world leader, the United States must ensure that our investments are funding not just any science but the best science,” they wrote.

Smith has been at this for more than a year now. Paul, as he gears up for the 2016 presidential campaign, is a more recent entrant in the NSF-bashing process that critics in the scientific community have said would harm the peer-review federal science funding process. Clearly, both Paul and Smith believe that a war on science is a political winner.

NSF, for its part, has largely defended these attacks on the scientific peer-review process by privately asking Smith and Paul to stop being so mean, and to look for non-confrontational ways to appease their overseers. It is essentially the Neville Chamberlain approach to the attacks on the peer-review process.

It’s doubtful, though, that this approach will work in any meaningful way. Smith, especially, has been unrelenting in his attacks on grants with silly-sounding names. Cherry-picking NSF grants (out of the thousands made each year) with weird names or a seemingly ridiculous hypothesis or premise is a nearly surefire way to guarantee media coverage for your criticism of federal science funding. It isn’t a “war on science.” It’s just a war on certain parts of the scientific process, they say.

So, to help this process along, here are a couple of examples of NSF-funded research projects with stupid or silly names created largely on a whim by academic researchers with the freedom to basically experiment with novel approaches. 

Both were built in the early, chaotic days of the World Wide Web. Both would look quite ridiculous under the Smith/Paul microscope of what constitutes the “best science” that’s in the national interest. 

One was essentially a popularity contest. The other was designed to make things more interesting for consumers. Neither was designed to change the world or defend the national interest. Both would have likely failed the Smith/Paul test.

The first project was a subset of a bigger grant to a university. It was, by every definition, a “pet project” of the two researchers who were both struggling to finish their graduate degrees and saw the project as a way to test their theories about what was popular and how this could be sorted out more easily. They even gave the research project a funny name that they themselves had difficulty explaining, and which sounded a bit ridiculous.

The project was called BackRub, and the first year of the research project was designed to see whether anyone could make sense of the nascent World Wide Web. It struggled early on. A Wayback Machine screen capture of its earliest incarnation tells anyone paying attention that they didn’t quite have their act together yet.

“Sorry, many services are unavailable due to a local network failure beyond our control. We are working to fix the problem and hope to be back up soon,” the BackRub researchers said at the top of their earliest archived website. 

The website did explain to users that it wasn’t about back rub massages – though that would certainly lend itself to a great headline for a House Science Committee press release. Its logo was a picture of one of the researcher’s hands, with “BackRub” superimposed over the top. Its name referred to the ability to look at backlinks (a precursor to the notion of hyperlinks) inside a page that was popular.

One of the researchers said on his personal homepage at the time that he’d gotten involved with the research project because, basically, it was sort of the cool thing to do. It was, in effect, a whim. “Research on the Web seems to be fashionable these days and I guess I'm no exception,” this researcher wrote.

He described one of the key components of his research in terms that would clearly seem vague and meandering to Smith and Paul. “We demonstrate a technique for extracting relations from the WWW based on the duality of patterns and relations. We experiment with it by extracting a relations of books,” the researcher wrote about his efforts to define BackRub.

The other BackRub researcher’s homepage was even more illuminating about his interests at the time. He features a picture of Lego building blocks, which he describes as a “programmable plotter” made out of Legos. 

“Legos and other lesser construction toys have been quite important to me,” he wrote in explaining why the picture is featured on his homepage alongside his NSF-funded research into BackRub. “I have constructed numerous amazing contraptions out of Legos. I built a four-foot wide inkjet printer out of Legos (and a few things from the hardware store and a bunch of electronics).”

The second project was a small end-of-year grant awarded to two researchers at the University of Illinois. It was tacked onto a bigger grant without a great deal of forethought. The researchers wanted to see if there might be a better way to show things like funny cat pictures with text files.

At the time, anyone reading an article about cats on the World Wide Web who also wanted to watch a funny cat video or see a picture of a cute cat had to go to another file system and actually download the cat video. 

The researchers who got the small NSF grant had a better idea. Why not just make it easier to see the funny cat pictures while they were reading? Why not just write some lines of code that would seamlessly populate text with pictures, making the page consumer-friendly and easy on the eyes?

So they did. One of the researchers locked himself away for a few days and wrote the code that was designed to make the World Wide Web more visual, and less boring. Then another researcher started talking about it to fellow programmers, who thought the idea was interesting and started to copy the idea.

The researchers described their efforts as a “graphical user interface” (or GUI). They gave it away for free at the time. It was built to mostly just embed pictures inside text so that consumers could actually visualize the World Wide Web. It wasn’t a grand design to change the world. 

I once asked the NSF program director how the NSF grant for this particular research project came to be, and he told me it was mostly fortuitous timing because there was some funding at the end of the year available to add on to an existing grant to the university – hardly a determination that was built around defending the national interest. It was, like the first, a “pet project” of two researchers who wanted nothing more than to see if something could work better.

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I’m sure most have guessed what these two projects are by now. The first is Google, which was created out of the first NSF digital library grant to Stanford University in the mid 1990s. The second project is the Mosaic web browser, which popularized the World Wide Web because it made it easy for pictures to accompany text in browsers. Mosaic was the foundation for both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, and made the Internet accessible to millions of consumers.

Today, looking backwards in time, we can see how BackRub and Mosaic changed the world. But at the time of their research funding and creation, would anyone have guessed at that potential? Hardly. Both were “pet projects” in their earliest research phases. Both had awkward, geeky names that might lend themselves to ridicule.

And both might never have begun in the first place if they’d been subjected to a congressional filter demanding that only research in the “national interest” should be considered and funded.

Nesbit's most recent Op-Ed was "Will Grizzly-Polar Bear Hybrid Wake People Up to Changing Climate?." This Op-Ed was adapted from "Another Answer to Why the Bees Are Dying," which first appeared in Nesbit's column At the Edge in U.S. News & World Report. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.