Rand Paul
© Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times/AP
US Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky)
On 29 July 2022, three Republican US Senators (Rand Paul, KY; Ted Cruz, TX; Richard Burr, NC) asked the Director of the National Science Foundation to provide information on a variety of concerns, ranging from how decisions on funding research grants are made, to how the NSF handles political conflicts of interest among the scientists it supports.

Good for them. Since its founding in 1950, the NSF has drifted far from its original mission and vision: to support basic research in universities. Among the aims was to insulate the process of scientific discovery from meddlesome politicians. No more: the NSF has harnessed itself to blatantly political aims, from the dubious "greening" of our society and nation, to the toxic agenda of "Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion". The Senators are right to lift the lid on these shenanigans. They are wasting taxpayers' money.

That said, the Senators are barking up the wrong tree. The NSF, as ripe a target as it might seem, is comparatively a small part of a bigger problem of corruption of science. Here is my humble advice to the Senators about what to target.

Go after the Big Science cartel

By all means, go after the NSF, but your real target should be the powerful interests in universities, foundations, academic publishers, and governments, known as the Big Science Cartel (BSC).

This tangled web is propped up by about $90 billion of annual federal expenditures, making the BSC a massive corporate/institutional welfare scheme. The NSF's annual $9 billion budget is about a tenth of total federal expenditures for academic research. The rest is doled out by several other federal agencies with the biggest player among them being the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They all are prone to the same questionable behaviors as the NSF, and are just as corrupt. The revelation of massive kickbacks and royalty schemes involving "public" health is only the most recent example.

So, my first point of advice: The NSF is small fry. If you want to fix science, go after the Big Science Cartel.

Don't be dopes

Sorry, senators, Big Science has seen your likes before - indeed the entire Big Science Cartel has been fending off attacks from politicians for decades.

In the 1970s, for example, Sen William Proxmire's (D, WI) Golden Fleece awards highlighted federally funded research projects that were "of questionable value." While the Golden Fleece Awards made for good laugh lines at Proxmire's after-dinner speeches, Proxmire had allowed himself to be drawn into a well-practiced game of Rope-A-Dope. Not sure of the meaning? From Wikipedia: rope-a-dope is a boxing ... technique in which one contender draws non-injuring offensive punches ... while leaning against the rope of the boxing ring ... to let the opponent tire themselves out.
Senator William Proxmire
© Donald Emmerich
Senator William Proxmire campaigns in Milwaukee.
That's what your opponents can do the second you utter the phrase "studies of questionable value". I can share a personal experience to illustrate. "Shrimp running on treadmills" inspired a lot of mockery of supposedly stupid projects funded by the government. (Full disclosure: this project was run by a friend of mine. It was actually just the kind of basic science NSF was founded to support.) The shrimp treadmill studies addressed basic questions in the evolution and energetics of locomotion. And it's had large payoffs: the incredible robots being produced by companies like Boston Robotics owe a lot to basic studies like this.

By playing the "questionable studies" card, you are allowing the culprits to paint you as ill-informed, and to advance the trope of the Republican War on Science.

Proxmire was not the first to take the "questionable studies" bait. President Eisenhower had addressed the problem more than a decade earlier in his famous farewell "military-industrial-academic-government complex" speech. Nothing changed, except the list of conspirators was shortened: the military and industrial bêtes-noires stayed in, while the academic and government players were excused. Nor was Proxmire the last. In 2011, Senator Tom Coburn (R, OK) issued an investigative report The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope. There, he laid out the NSF's long record of bureaucratic waste and mismanagement. The NSF responded by claiming these were anomalies, masking all the valuable work the NSF was doing. Give us your next shot, Senator Coburn! The end result: nothing changed. Rope-A-Dope.

In 2018, Senator Ted Cruz joined with Senator Paul again, along with Senators Imhofe and Lankford (R, OK), to take the NSF to task over the studies of dubious value about climate change. Out came the whining that Republicans were against science: change my mind! The result? Rope-A-Dope again.

Most recently, President Trump proposed changes in the budgeting of NIH which actually would have increased dollars spent on scientific research. No dice: it was going to be the end of science, a devastating attack on science. Rope-A-Dope for the fourth time.

Big Science has sailed serenely on, indifferent to these teapot tempests boiling up around it, secure in the knowledge that the budgets will continue to double roughly every seven years.

They're drawing you into the ropes already. Don't let them play Rope-A-Dope again.

Choose your target carefully

Like the Death Star deployed by the Galactic Empire against the Rebel Alliance, the Big Science Cartel is powerful and resilient. It was not sufficient to simply shoot at the thing, even with powerful munitions. To destroy it, the torpedo rather had to be aimed at the Death Star's one weak point. So it is with Big Science: if you don't find the right target, you will get only pyrotechnics, leaving the Death Star to cruise on to its next planetary victim.

For the BSC, your target is how science is funded.You as Senators can actually do something about that. Here is the problem: about $130 billion flows annually to universities to support their faculties' scientific research. An expenditure of $130 billion for scientific research does not mean, however, that $130 billion is actually spent each year on scientific research. Your target should be the difference between the money spent and the money spent on actual research.

The difference comes from a particularly tangled knot of collusion between universities and funding agencies. A scientist does not apply for research grants, the institution that employs him applies. Institutions, moreover, tack a surcharge, called indirect costs, onto every grant proposal. This surcharge averages about 50% of the budget for the actual research - what are called direct costs. So, for every $100,000 spent supporting the scientist and his work, the university takes in, on average, an extra $50,000 dollar surcharge. Of the $130 billion appropriated for research, therefore, only $80 billion of it supports research.

Indirect costs have a legitimate role in defraying a university's administrative costs of hosting a research program. But indirect costs also have long been a source of institutional flim-flammery and administrative mischief. The typical indirect costs rate of 50% far exceeds indirect costs rates for other countries' national research programs. In the EU, indirect costs rates are 20-25%. In South Africa, which has a respectable national research program, indirect costs rates are around 15%. When American taxpayers and elected representatives see that our institutions of higher education typically bill the federal government for indirect costs at a typical rate of 50% (and some institutions charge indirect costs rates of around 90%), two questions should come immediately to mind. How did those exorbitant rates come to be? And what's all that extra money being used for?

With respect, Senators, those are the questions you should be asking. You'll be surprised by the answers. And they are something you can actually do something about. Congress once set indirect costs rates itself, but in 1966, Congress abdicated this responsibility by delegating to universities and funding agencies the task of setting "equitable" (i.e. "gold-plated") indirect costs rates. We see the result. Congress should step in again to control indirect costs.

My advice: impose a 10% cap on indirect costs rates for all federally funded research. That would cut off the oxygen to the parasitic elements of the Big Science Cartel, and force universities to cut their massive administrative bloat. The savings might even allow more money to flow to actual scientific research. While you're at it, encourage state legislatures to impose the same limits on universities operating in their states.

And ignore the predicable shrieks about the end of science. What you will be ending is the weaponized politics that is now masquerading as science. Then, there might be a chance of actually making a difference.
J Scott Turner is Director of the Intrusion of Diversity in the Sciences project at the National Association of Scholars.