Well this is unsettling. Apparently the National Science Foundation (NSF) is under some increased scrutiny right now by Lamar Smith, the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. (Side note, I still can't believe that this committee is chaired by a Christian Scientist. As in a believer in faith healing =/.) In particular, staffers are poring over the research proposals of projects funded by the NSF. From the Science article:
Unlike the experts who normally review proposals, the congressional staffers weren't really there to judge their scientific merits. The Republican aide was looking for anything that Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), his boss as chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, could use to demonstrate how the $7 billion research agency is wasting taxpayer dollars on frivolous or low-priority projects, particularly in the social sciences. The Democratic staff member wanted to make sure that her boss, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the panel's senior Democrat, knew enough about each grant to rebut any criticism that Smith might levy.
Personally, I don't mind proposals being public so that everyone can see all the different awesome projects their taxes are funding. Part of my funding comes from the NSF, and I am super super grateful for their support and happy to share my research (well, as long as no one is trying to scoop me..and assuming anyone even wants to hear about it =P). But this kind of selective prying in order to judge your research as a waste? Sends chills down my spine for the state of funding of basic science.
What even defines "useful" research anyway? Many basic discoveries aren't going to have immediate applications, but will help deepen our basic understanding of natural processes. This is vital for research to move forward, and new, "marketable" discoveries being made. One of the examples being mocked by Smith is research into riding a bicycle. But even something as random as this can have interesting ramifications:
Mont Hubbard is the "bicycle designs" grantee on Smith's intended list of shame. A professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Davis, Hubbard received $300,000 in 2009 to study the feedback system that allows humans to control a moving vehicle, in this case a bicycle. And he thinks the work clearly meets Smith's definition of research in the national interest. Substitute "pilot" for "rider" and "airplane" for "bicycle," he says, and it's clear that helping humans do a better job of manipulating machines has the potential to greatly improve performance, reduce safety risks, and even defend the country.
Yeah, I'd say that sounds pretty "useful."