Congressman blasts National Science Foundation spending
Agency spent $700,000 to produce a Climate Change Musical
Posted by Richard Moore
First published in The Lakeland Times
The U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing last week for the National Science Foundation’s proposed 2019 fiscal year budget, and what the agency’s leaders heard was a blistering assessment of the agency’s spending.
Still, committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said, things have improved significantly in the past year, though challenges remain.
The agency is not an unimportant one, for it is a core driver of the nation’s scientific research. Since its creation in 1950, Smith said, the NSF has promoted fundamental scientific discovery and is the only federal agency that supports basic research across all scientific fields, including research in areas like national security, energy, quantum technology, biotechnology, STEM education, and cybersecurity.
In addition, Smith says, the NSF funds more than 360,000 scientists, engineers, and students with competitive grants, which he says help make the United States a world leader in knowledge and innovation.
But, Smith says, the NSF has in recent years funded too many projects that seem marginal or frivolous.
“When the NSF spent $700,000 on a Climate Change Musical or $1.5 million to study pasture management in Mongolia, it reduced investments in projects that could yield groundbreaking new knowledge and discoveries,” Smith said at the hearing. “I believe there has been improvement but challenges remain. I am concerned that there are still too many projects being funded in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences that are not worthy of taxpayers’ dollars.”
For example, Smith said, in the past year the NSF spent $310,000 to study congressional “Dear Colleague” letters; $450,000 to study why there is no single English word for “light blue”; $330,000 to study cell phone use by Tanzanian women; $138,000 to study monkey responses to “inequity and violated expectation”; $217,000 to document a language spoken in two villages of northern Pakistan; and $75,000 to “produce a description of Maku,” an extinct Amazon language.
To be sure, Smith said, social-behavioral science can help solve complex problems that touch several areas of science — for instance, protecting computers and computer networks from hackers requires research in both computer and behavioral science — but when only one out of five requests for grants is being funded, there must be priorities.
“We cannot afford to misspend another dollar on low-priority or frivolous activities,” he said. “Simply put, the NSF should fund useful research over the useless.”
Careful and prioritized spending is especially important in an age when China is challenging the U.S., Smith said.
“China now has the world’s fastest supercomputer and has just passed the U.S. for the first time to lead the world in the number and total performance of supercomputers,” he said. “China is also making rapid progress in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, human genome editing and other crucial areas of science and technology.”
Unfortunately, Smith said, as China leaps forward, the U.S. is slowing down investment in key areas of basic research like physics and computing, and he said that can’t change unless taxpayers’ money is better invested.
“I am also concerned about whether or not the NSF is developing its STEM workforce programs to meet the needs of our economy,” he said. “The United States continues to lag significantly behind China and the European Union in science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, with China producing more than twice the number of STEM undergraduates.”
In the physical and biological sciences, China produces four times more undergraduates in those fields than the U.S., Smith said.
“The NSF plays a critical role in helping educate and train the next generation of STEM workers,” he said. “We need to invest in young people who will go into fields where there is a national need and good paying jobs.”
While Congress has little patience for the frivolous projects, Smith said the committee has demonstrated there is broad support for basic and fundamental research and STEM education.
On the defense
Dr. France Córdova, the director of the NSF, defended the agency’s achievements.
“For example, last year, eight American scientists were awarded Nobel prizes in the fields of physics, economics, biology, and chemistry,” Córdova said. “All eight of those world-class researchers were, at some point in their careers, supported by NSF.”
In fact, Córdova said, since the 1950s NSF has funded more than 230 Nobel laureates.
“Last year’s awardees included the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) scientists who in 2015 detected gravitational waves — first predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago — and opened a new and exciting chapter in astrophysics,” she said. “Their work will enable new commercial applications and countless new discoveries.”
Notably, Córdova said, LIGO represents a 40-year investment by the NSF and speaks to the importance of the nation’s ability to invest in high-risk, high-reward research and facilities that allow scientists to explore the frontiers of science.
That said, Córdova said the agency is engaging in substantive reform to curtail the excesses, in particular by adapting to a changing scientific ecosystem.
“The landscape in which NSF executes its mission is constantly evolving,” she said. “Today’s research questions are increasingly interdisciplinary in nature, requiring new levels and forms of scientific and engineering collaboration. At the same time, the nation is addressing pressing challenges, including maintaining the security of cyber systems and physical infrastructure, building resiliency to disasters, improving Americans’ health and quality of life, educating and inspiring the next-generation workforce, and growing American jobs and economic productivity.”
To continue to achieve its mission, Córdova said, the NSF must adapt to that evolving environment, and to that end she said the agency would focus on five areas of reform.
First, Córdova said, the NSF would seek to expand public and private partnerships to bring additional expertise, resources, and capacity to NSF-funded research. The NSF will also work to better align its workforce and work, and to streamline, standardize, and simplify programs and processes.
“Many NSF business processes are managed and executed locally within the agency’s directorates and offices, posing efficiency and collaboration challenges,” she said. “NSF will revise policies and business processes to increase standardization across NSF organizations and eliminate unnecessary complexity.”
And, Córdova said, the agency must make information technology work for agency employees.
“For NSF to continue funding cutting-edge science and engineering, leading-edge IT solutions that can adapt easily and quickly are essential,” she said. “NSF will work to ensure that IT tools enhance employee productivity and satisfaction by enabling access, through easy-to-use interfaces, to reliable, readily available, and fully integrated data to support decision making.”
Certainly, Córdova said, there is a pressing need for NSF grants and research support.
“The complex global and domestic challenges facing the nation today require NSF investments,” she said. “Federal investment in basic research and the STEM workforce, led by NSF, is vital to the nation’s continued global leadership.”
To be sure, Córdova said, other nations continue to increase their support of research, development, and STEM education, as they innovate in next-generation technologies.
“China and the European Union have invested significantly in quantum technology, and continue to invest billions of dollars in artificial intelligence research with an eye to a future of global leadership in these areas,” she said. “There is unprecedented global competition for highly skilled, technical workers who will lead tomorrow’s innovations. Continued U.S. support for basic research has never been more vital for the nation and for the world.”
While the president’s proposed NSF budget was the same as what Congress approved last year, Córdova said, the content differed some since the budget reflects administration priorities. That means supporting basic research across all fields of science and engineering that create knowledge while allowing the agency to invest in priority areas like NSF’s Big Ideas program.
Among other things, that program would accelerate focused, cross-disciplinary efforts around two Big Ideas: harnessing the data revolution for 21st-century science and engineering; and the future of work at the human-technology frontier.
"The budget would also allow the agency to initiate an Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science project, and build two Regional Class Research Vessels, a major component in the plan for modernizing the U.S. academic research fleet,” she said.
The budget request was for $7.47 billion, the same as the final funding for this past year. In the end, in the just-passed budget deal, the agency actually received $7.67 billion, or a 4-percent increase.
“This level of funding reflects the administration’s commitment to NSF’s role in strengthening the nation’s economy, national security, and global leadership, while also restraining non-defense spending across the government,” Córdova said.
In 2019, Córdova said NSF would expect to evaluate approximately 50,600 proposals through its competitive merit review process and make approximately 11,100 new competitive awards. The agency expects that more than 93 percent of its 2019 requested budget would be used to fund research and education grants and research infrastructure in the science and education communities.
Córdova said robust NSF investments in discovery research have returned exceptional dividends to the American people, expanding knowledge, improving lives, and ensuring security.
“To keep those benefits flowing, we need to constantly replenish the wellspring of new ideas and train new talent while serving as good stewards of the public trust,” she said. “That is the fundamental and continuing mission of NSF.”
In other testimony, Maria Zuber, the chairwoman of the National Science Board, said the global science and technology landscape is dynamic and fast-changing, and is becoming increasingly multipolar as developing economies emerge as major players, particularly China and other nations in the Asia/Pacific region.
So far, Zuber said, the U.S. is still the global leader in science and technology.
“Our 2018 report shows the U.S. invests the most of any nation in research and development, attracts the most venture capital, awards the most advanced degrees, provides the most business, financial, and information services, and is the largest producer in high-technology manufacturing sectors,” Zuber said. “However, the U.S. global share of S&T activities is declining as other nations continue to rise. For the first time in over a half century, U.S. S&T leadership is threatened.”
While the business sector is the largest performer of research and development in the United States, Zuber said, accounting for 72 percent of the $495 billion total in 2015, the bulk of those funds are spent on applied research and experimental development.
“The federal government remains the largest funder of basic research ($36.9 billion, 44 percent of the U.S. basic research total),” she said. “This federal government investment is the primary driver of both innovative discovery research and the training of a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-capable U.S. workforce.”
Total federal research and development funding has been on a declining trend since 2011, Zuber said, falling from $127 billion in 2011 to $120 billion in 2015.
“Other countries have recognized the importance of R&D in fueling innovation and economic growth and are emulating the United States,” she testified. “China has grown its R&D spending rapidly since 2000, at an average of 18 percent annually, and is now a decisive second with 21 percent of the global total of $408 billion.”
Membership in NRA, gun groups grow
Renewals, donations spike as gun control push increases
Posted by Richard Moore
First published in The Lakeland Times
Attendance for the student March for Our Lives on March 24 in the nation’s capital fizzled, far from what organizers predicted would be the largest demonstration for gun control ever, but that could have been predicted because out in the grassroots, and far away from TV cameras and the mainstream media, another story is being written: Rising membership in gun-rights groups, increasing intensity among existing members of those groups, and even growing numbers of young people expressing support for gun rights.
First, growing membership. After the Parkland shooting, according to TIME Magazine, representatives from more than a dozen gun-rights organizations and shooting associations reported increases in membership. The increases ranged from red states such as Texas and Georgia to blue states such as Massachusetts and New York.
Sources close to the NRA also told TIME that that group’s membership was growing, along with unusual fervor among existing members to renew memberships or donate money. The NRA has self-reported more than 5-million members, though it never gives a specific number.
The Second Amendment Foundation, a pro-gun rights group that says its mission is to promote a better understanding about the nation’s constitutional heritage to privately own and possess firearms, has also reported significantly higher levels of support.
Interestingly, much of the support is coming from young people, the group’s founder says.
Specifically, the Second Amendment Foundation said it had experienced a 1,200-percent increase in the number of 18-to-20-year-olds joining or supporting the organization.
“We normally don’t get that many members or donors in that age group, since the gun rights movement typically trends toward older Americans,” SAF founder and executive vice president Alan Gottlieb said. “But the 18-to-20-year-olds have never been specifically targeted before, and they are obviously alarmed. This influx of young Americans into the gun rights movement is important, not just to respond to the current gun control threat, but as the movement has gotten older, it is encouraging to see so many young adults getting involved in support of Second Amendment rights.”
While SAF has always conducted leadership training conferences, Gottlieb said, the group will now increase its emphasis on a younger audience and on efforts to integrate them into leadership roles.
Gottlieb said he became aware of the spike in younger memberships after three weeks of almost non-stop news and editorializing about preventing young adults from buying firearms, especially modern sporting rifles. He said the issue intensified after legislation was signed in Florida to raise the age limit on firearms purchases, and after the decision by two national chains to impose their own restrictions.
“It’s important to note that this interest surge has been organic on the Internet,” he said. “SAF did nothing special to make it happen. They have really done this on their own, finding us on the Internet and following up.”
Gottlieb said he wanted young adults in the 18-to-20 age group to know they are welcome in the gun rights movement.
“While the media has paraded high school students to push a gun control agenda, the age group that is now being targeted by that effort is energizing, and showing that there is another side to this controversy,” he said.
The membership spike should come as no surprise, except that the mainstream media doesn’t report it much. But such increases have followed past aggressive efforts at gun control, as people fear the government will ban guns after violent incidents, and the numbers are also consistent with sustained support for gun rights among reputable public opinion surveys.
For example, a Pew Research Center survey found that, in 2017, Americans only narrowly opposed allowing teachers and school officials to carry guns. And while more than 60 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws in general, there is significantly less support for specific proposals.
And, in a Monmouth University poll taken in early March, a majority of respondents said they were worried that comprehensive background checks or a gun registration database would lead the federal government to monitor other activities of American citizens, and the respondents were evenly split on a proposed ban of the sale of all semi-automatic rifles.
The media has made much of major businesses imposing their own restrictions on firearm sales, and of moves by some major corporations to drop promotional sponsorship programs with the NRA.
The messaging is that growing business support for gun control laws and practices and corporate opposition to the NRA reflect a similar growth in attitudes among the general population, but the reality may not match the message.
For example, after the Parkland shooting, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it would no longer sell assault-style firearms and high-capacity magazines, and raised its age for purchasing firearms to 21.
But, far from marching in step with its customer base, Dick’s CEO Edward Stack, speaking in an earnings conference call on March 13, said the new policies would likely cause Dick’s to lose rather than gain customers.
That assessment runs against the grain of observers who say the gun and hunting part of Dick’s business had been soft over the preceding year anyway, and so the restrictive moves represented a “prudent decision both from a business and PR perspective,” to use the words of Sam Poser, analyst for Susquehanna Financial Group.
But, while Stack said it was too early to truly gauge the impact of the new restrictions, he said there had been some negative pushback, and that could affect not just gun sales but store-wide traffic.
“And some of those customers that buy firearms buy other things also,” Stack said in the conference call. “And we’ve had some pushback and we knew that that was going to happen and we try to have that in our guidance that was going to be — there’s going to be the people who just don’t shop us anymore for anything.”
Others observed that gun sales provided Dick’s with a smaller a margin rate and so the loss might not be that substantial, but again Stack pointed to the other items those customers buy.
“There’s a lot of accessory items there, hunting apparel, hunting boots, the accessories that go along with the firearms that the margin rates are pretty good at,” he said.
Finally, much has been made of major corporations withdrawing their support for various promotional partnerships with the NRA, such as Delta Airlines. Less has been made of companies who have said they will retain their partnerships, such as FedEx.
More important, perhaps, is the continued robust support among businesses at the Main Street level. For example, on its website, the NRA Business Alliance continues to boast the support of more than 3,100 businesses across the U.S., including 67 in Wisconsin.
The Business Alliance was established in 1992 to provide NRA member businesses with a marketplace to sell goods and services to fellow NRA members.
As for the companies who had discontinued their discounts and cost-saving programs with the NRA, the NRA said in a statement on corporate partnerships that it would not be bowed by such moves.
“Since the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, a number of companies have decided to sever their relationship with the NRA, in an effort to punish our members who are doctors, farmers, law enforcement officers, fire fighters, nurses, shop owners and school teachers that live in every American community,” the statement said. “We are men and women who represent every American ethnic group, every one of the world’s religions and every form of political commitment.”
The statement said that law-abiding members of the NRA had nothing to do with what it called the failure of the Parkland school’s security preparedness, the failure of America’s mental health system, the failure of the National Instant Check System, or the cruel failures of both federal and local law enforcement.
“Despite that, some corporations have decided to punish NRA membership in a shameful display of political and civic cowardice,” the NRA stated. “In time, these brands will be replaced by others who recognize that patriotism and determined commitment to constitutional freedoms are characteristics of a marketplace they very much want to serve.”
Let it be absolutely clear, the NRA asserted:
“The loss of a discount will neither scare nor distract one single NRA member from our mission to stand and defend the individual freedoms that have always made America the greatest nation in the world.”
Stopping dangerous people
The NRA also took steps last week to clarify its position on “extreme risk protection orders (ERPO),” or “red flag” laws, that allow a court to temporarily restrict a person’s access to guns when they are deemed a danger to themselves or others.
The NRA has fought such legislation in multiple states, but on a YouTube video last week, the NRA’s Chris Cox said Congress should provide funding for states to adopt precisely such legislation.
“This can help prevent violent behavior before it turns into a tragedy,” Cox said.
In a post on the video site, the NRA said its position on such orders had been mischaracterized by those who hadn’t taken the time to understand the NRA’s position, “including the anti-gun mainstream media and organizations that purport to support the Second Amendment.”
Many of the individuals mischaracterizing the position were using misinformation to simply attack the NRA, the NRA alleged.
“The NRA fights for the constitutional freedoms, including the due process rights, of all law-abiding Americans, every day in Congress, the statehouses and the courts,” the post stated. “Our record on this is clear. Due process of law is a bedrock of our constitutional freedoms. Without it, we would cease to exist as a free country.”
The NRA’s opposition to some legislation and red flag laws stem from those proposals’ and laws’ lack of basic due process protections, the NRA stated, which made them little more than confiscation schemes.
“This is unacceptable,” the post stated. “The NRA believes that no one should be deprived of a fundamental right without due process of law.”
The NRA said it would continue to oppose any effort to create a federal ERPO law, in which federal agents would be tasked with seizing firearms after a hearing in federal court.
“As states consider ERPO laws, the NRA will continue to push for the inclusion of strong due process protections,” the NRA stated. “The NRA believes that any effort should be structured to fully protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens while preventing truly dangerous individuals from accessing firearms.”
The organization said a strong process should include criminal penalties for those who bring false or frivolous charges. What’s more, an order should only be granted when a judge makes the determination, by clear and convincing evidence, that the person poses a significant risk of danger to themselves or others.
“The process should require the judge to make a determination of whether the person meets the state standard for involuntary commitment,” the NRA stated. “Where the standard for involuntary commitment is met, this should be the course of action taken.”
If a protection order is granted, the NRA continued, the person should receive community-based mental health treatment as a condition of the order, any ex parte proceeding should include admitting the individual for treatment, and a person’s Second Amendment rights should only be temporarily deprived after a hearing before a judge, in which the person has notice of the hearing and is given an opportunity to offer evidence on his or her behalf.
“There should be a mechanism in place for the return of firearms upon termination of an ERPO, when a person is ordered to relinquish their firearms as a condition of the order,” the NRA asserted. “The ERPO process should allow an individual to challenge or terminate the order, with full due process protections in place.”
Finally, the NRA stated, the process should allow firearms to be retained by law-abiding third parties, local law enforcement, or a federally licensed firearms dealer when an individual is ordered to relinquish such firearms.
The individual must also have the ability to sell his or her firearms in a reasonable time without violating the order, the NRA stated.
“Again, the NRA will continue to oppose any proposal that does not fully protect due process rights,” the post concluded. “We will only support an ERPO process that strongly protects both Second Amendment rights and due process rights at the same time.”