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Opinion: Science That Leads

The National Science Foundation needs to get its priorities straight

The Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The U.S. is falling behind China in key science and technology areas, Smith writes. (Courtesy Oak Ridge National Laboratory)
The Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The U.S. is falling behind China in key science and technology areas, Smith writes. (Courtesy Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

This past summer, Chinese scientists used quantum technology to teleport a single photon from the Earth’s surface to an orbiting satellite. Although Star Trek fans will be disappointed that teleportation of human beings is a long way off, teleporting a photon into space is an amazing achievement — and an example of China’s all-out effort to dominate quantum information science and other emerging technologies.

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. As of this month, China has 202 supercomputers on the TOP500 ranking, its largest showing to date, compared to 143 for the U.S., an all-time low.

China is also making rapid progress in artificial intelligence, human genome editing and other crucial areas of science and technology. Unfortunately, as China leaps forward, the U.S. is slowing down. This won’t change unless taxpayers’ money is invested sensibly.

Congress created the National Science Foundation in 1950 to support basic scientific research, vital to economic growth and national security “in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, engineering, and other sciences.”

This year, Congress appropriated about $6 billion of taxpayers’ money to the NSF for high-priority scientific research in the national interest. Unfortunately, a significant amount of this $6 billion continues to be wasted on low priority, even frivolous activities.

In the social and behavioral sciences, often referred to as the “soft sciences,” the NSF allocates billions of dollars to hundreds of low priority projects, such as dozens of archeological digs in faraway places, numerous studies of prehistoric fishing and hunting practices, and even a history of animal photographs in National Geographic magazine. The foundation has also funded hundreds of surveys about less-than-pressing issues such as senior citizens’ dating habits, college students’ cell phone usage and young Russian lawyers’ careers.

A tiny sampling of questionable NSF projects:

  • $480,000 to study early Viking culture in northern Ireland.
  • $645,000 to study photographs of Greenland in the 1930s.

The NSF also awards millions of dollars to individual undergraduate and graduate students in order to train more science teachers and strengthen the nation’s base of young researchers. Unfortunately, the foundation provides financial support to more than twice as many graduate students in the social and behavioral sciences as in computer science, mathematics or material science.

Earlier this year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the nation’s most prestigious science group, reported that the NSF’s social-behavioral programs lacked priorities and strategic vision. Another report found substantial problems with scientific integrity in social-behavioral research (e.g., one-half or more of published social-behavioral research findings cannot be replicated).

Social-behavioral science can help solve certain 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. The best anti-virus software can’t overcome careless behavior by computer users.

But we can’t afford to misspend another dollar on low-priority activities. Taxpayer-supported research must be focused on fields most likely to yield scientific breakthroughs, technological innovation and economic growth.

Three steps need to be taken immediately:

  • Congress should reduce funding for social-behavioral research by 10 to 20 percent for fiscal 2018, shifting these funds to nonsocial research.
  • The NSF should set aside 10 percent of social-behavioral funds to validate research results. Scientific integrity problems won’t go away by themselves.
  • The NSF should focus social-behavioral research on crucial national problems, e.g., multi-generational poverty, overcoming learning disabilities, and natural disaster preparedness.

In the coming months and years, there will be big breakthroughs in supercomputing, quantum information science, advanced materials, nanotechnology and other areas. If we get our priorities in order, our scientists will surpass their counterparts in China and other competing countries, and our economic prosperity and national security will be assured.

Rep. Lamar Smith is a Republican representing Texas’ 21st District. He serves as chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which has jurisdiction over the EPA, NASA, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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