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US Senator Rand Paul recently spent his valuable time attacking government spending on scientific progress as part of deliberations by the Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight. This is nothing new for Republicans, who gleefully throw $824.6 billion at our military for never-ending wars but balk at (in this case) a few million dollars in grant money that is funding dozens and dozens of scientific projects.
Paul’s goal in this subcommittee is to actually do the opposite of what Republicans always say they want in government: create more red tape. He wants to hire a team of people to oversee every dollar in grant money that goes toward scientific research, making sure that whatever research is funded is considered appropriately groundbreaking, or more likely has military applications, as all the best scientific breakthroughs do (how else would we have Blu-ray players if we hadn’t thought we might be able to destroy our enemies with lasers?).
Paul brings up the famous “shrimp on a treadmill” study first, which was attacked so commonly in the past that the scientist who did the study, Sheila Patek of Duke University, went to Capitol Hill with a fucking science fair project display and carefully explained to Republican senator Jeff Flake the importance of research on mantis shrimp. He was actually won over when he realized that her research had direct applications for (you guessed it) the military.
Next Paul complains about studies that are funded by government grants that don’t adhere to the original grant descriptions. His example is a study in which, “they were going to study collaboration on scientific research, they somehow got to what makes for a perfect first date.”
I did a little digging and managed to find what he was talking about, thanks in part to the fact that he’s been whining about this study for more than a year. It was not, in fact, a study about what makes for a perfect first date — he got that title from an article in Women’s Health magazine that cited the study, which is actually titled “Making the Connection: Social Bonding in Courtship Situations.” In the study, researchers studied language use during speed dating to see how people’s words affected their bonding abilities.
The grant that Rand Paul complains helped fund this study is titled “What drives the dynamic creation of science?” This study was also funded by two other National Science Foundation grants plus a Google Research Award and a Spencer Foundation training grant, but Paul takes exception with this grant because he says it’s “to study how scientists collaborate on scientific research.”
In fact, the grant specifies that it is to research and encourage multi-disciplinary collaboration between sociologists, linguists, and computer scientists.
Knowing that, you’ll never guess the disciplines of the lead authors of “Making the Connection: Social Bonding in Courtship Situations.” Wait, maybe you will: one was a sociologist, and one was a computational linguist. They collaborated across disciplines in order to create a new mode of evaluating human behavior. Some people would say that’s a perfect use of an NSF grant for encouraging multi-disciplinary collaboration between sociologists, linguists, and computer scientists, but not Rand Paul, probably because he only read about this study in Women’s Health magazine.
I’m not saying there aren’t bad studies out there — I talk about them on this channel all the time! And I’m not saying there’s no such thing as government waste — I talk about that all the time, too. Like if I were in charge of wasteful spending, I’d probably start with the quarter of a million dollars that were spent flying Mike Pence to a football game he walked out of before kickoff.
What I am saying is that maybe we shouldn’t trust government officials like Rand Paul to decide what is and is not useful science based on whatever magazine they happened to pick up at their dental appointment last month.
Also, Rand Paul, please get a better graphic designer for your weird, misleading newsletters. Whoever you paid to make that is the real travesty of wasted government money.