Research earmarks

After the bridge, and the road to the not-bridge, earmarks for research on bear DNA, seals, and crabs have been used as ammunition (an example among many here) in the election debate. In her inept way, I think Palin was sort of right about this issue (sort of right is the most precise judgment one can make of this poor woman’s public discourse), and I think it’s time to stop taking cheap shots with this kind of example. McCain snorted at studying bear DNA with public money. Oh yeah? Senator, do you have a list of organisms whose DNA is OK to study? Or do you think there’s nothing to learn from DNA at all?

Almost any piece of scientific research, especially in biology, that isn’t called “Cure cancer!” is liable to the kind of ignorant ridicule lobbed at these. Sure, some research is deeply silly and some is not worth doing. But that non-specialists can make fun of something from its title means nothing, and these japes indicate only the smug ignorance of the speaker. There is a problem with these earmarks, and a real one, but it’s not that they are silly research, it’s that scientific research should be selected for funding by political judgments about large program areas and peer/expert selection of individual grants. The grounds for dissing these is that Congress is no good at allocating science money at the individual project level, and shouldn’t do so even if the projects in question are really stellar: if they are, they should make it through NSF review.

Giving in to the temptation to make fun of an earmarked scientific project for its own sake, rather than for the damage earmark short-circuits do to science generally, isn’t worth the political hay it reaps, and it empowers the really dangerous forces that are anti-science and pro-ignorance. Let’s leave the bears and the seals out of the conversation.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.