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Republicans Ask for Help Vetting Science Funding

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, December 7 2010

Katrin Verclas points us to the news that House Republicans, under the leadership of incoming Minority Leader Eric Cantor, are using their YouCut crowd-sourcing tool to ask for public help to figure out which National Science Foundation grants might not be worth the taxpayer dollars. House Republicans are calling on the public to help find "wasteful spending" by combing NSF's public online grant database housed at NSF.gov. They're asking folks to send in suggestions on what might be unworthy grants. They will, they say, compile a report outlining which research grants the public has found wanting. The project's running under the banner of "YouCut Citizen Review of Government."

Clearly a target here is NSF funding for projects on the squishy social science side of things. House Republicans are recommending to YouCuttters that they pick keywords that they suspect might turn up troublesome grants in the NSF database. In case you're stuck for ideas, they have a few to suggest. You might start, they say, with things like "culture," "media," "social norm," "leisure," "success," and "museum." (Culture, at least, turns out to be not all that useful a search, since it pops up in scores of hard-science applications, given its laboratory definition.)

With their investigation of whose getting what scientific grants, the team behind YouCut is making a subtle shift in focus that's also a fairly significant one. Up until now, YouCut has been used to ask people to tell House Republicans, by mobile or by web, which spending measures that their elected representatives in the GOP should seek to cut through the legislative process. Here, Republicans are asking the masses to help them do granular oversight work. (And for what it's worth, the National Science Foundation is an involuntary participant in this project.) Grants funded by NSF already go through a "Merit Review Process" that includes review by the applicants peers, the way much scientific research comes to fruition. The House GOP is effectively calling on the public to work as citizen peer-reviewers.

The NSF database, made public in the hopes of making the grant-awarding process, gives them a good bit of material to work with as they set about their task. A listing for a $3,000 grant for dissertation research on "How Does Law Matter in Social Movements?" lists the professional email addresses of the academic researchers at Berkeley involved in the project. But there's only a limited amount of information available on the project at hand; there's only a 250-word or so description on the site from which YouCutters can use to make their decision.

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