The Scientist has an article reporting that the stimulus money that went to fund science is entangled with serious red tape. Bob Grant reports that the billions in new funding comes with strings attached.
"...the money, it turns out, comes with strings attached: keeping up with ARRA's administrative requirements is costing institutions thousands in increased overhead and may be compromising or delaying other initiatives and projects at the nation's leading research universities. "
Horrors! The Government is strangling science by giving it money! But seriously, while the reporting requirements seem excessive, there are those for whom they are both a bug AND and a feature. Plus, the narrative they've crafted is still distorting the debate.
I'm taking the liberty of cross-posting the comment I left over at The Scientist here as well. The article is worth reading, both because of the reporting on stimulus money going to support research, and because of the way (in my opinion at least) it illustrates how the conservative message machine colors reporting. Here's the comment I submitted for posting. (Note: The Scientist may ask for a free registration to view some materials.)
This is a good story - as far as it goes. But science does not take place in a vacuum (metaphorically speaking.)
One, at a time when all funding is tight - not just from the federal government - is it really surprising that following the money has suddenly gotten a higher priority? The emphasis here is on the stimulus of course, but I'd wager every other source of funding is paying a lot more attention these days. Maybe they are not all asking for quarterly reports, but what reports do get handed in are probably getting scrutinized very closely.
Two, there's several casual assertions in comments that this is all about bragging rights for free spending politicians. And let's be fair; any politician who has managed to get a project funded is going to want some credit for it. While carping at the Democrats is easy on this, there are a lot of Republican bald-faced hypocrites who screamed about deficits, voted against the stimulus - and then ran home to get their pictures taken at projects funded with stimulus money. Would that they were getting the same critical examination for their actions that scientists are being forced to endure. Which leads into ....
Three, it's all about the framing. This story has a lot of conservative bias built into it - but that's not surprising because the themes playing out here have been pounded into the public consciousness for decades. Let's start deconstructing the narrative a bit. Take the first paragraph to start.
"When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) doled out $10 billion to the National Institutes of Health and $3 billion to the National Science Foundation last year, many hailed it as a triumph for the US research enterprise. But the money, it turns out, comes with strings attached: keeping up with ARRA's administrative requirements is costing institutions thousands in increased overhead and may be compromising or delaying other initiatives and projects at the nation's leading research universities."
Start with orders of magnitude: the concern about thousands of dollars in extra costs out of billions of dollars of new funding. While it may vary from project to project, that's roughly a fraction of a penny for every new dollar of funding. And that's a problem? Seriously?
Other projects and initiatives may be held up because of the strain of meeting the requirements. True - but a lot of new work is going to get accomplished as well. This is more a problem of a chronically underfunded support infrastructure than a government gone crazy with red tape - although that is part of the problem. And for some, it is not a bug - it's a feature.
There's several conservative talking points underlying this. One is that government money comes with too much waste and burdensome regulation. The other is that people would be getting more science done if they didn't have to placate a bureaucratic monster. This narrative is always trotted out to attack government spending on science and government in general. It doesn't matter whether it is true or not because it is NOT about science. It's about government spending - and people who hate the idea of any spending that doesn't go right into their pockets.
There are several political imperatives driving the quarterly reporting requirements. One is the need for Democrats to be able to point to success stories as quickly as possible in the face of instant charges coming from the Republicans that the stimulus isn't working and the money was wasted. Without hard numbers to answer back (however premature), the Democrats are going to get drowned out by the Republican attack machine. And, the Democrats are also trying to meet the cries for greater accountability.
It's all part of a deliberate strategy by the Republicans to make using the money as difficult as possible; they insist on this nonsense for political advantage. These reporting requirements reinforce the idea that taxpayer dollars will be wasted without oversight. They want to make using federal funds as onerous as possible so people will be discouraged from seeking them.
They want to push horror stories about red tape and overzealous regulation while they also know that the more reports there are going back and forth, the greater the chances they'll be able to find something to blow up into a major scandal. Thus they can discredit the whole idea of government funding for science. Sometimes red tape serves to support the political agenda of those who complain loudest about it.
There's an off hand remark in one of the other comments on this article that predicts that most of the research coming from the stimulus will be of little use - that it will get done, be written up, and then largely buried away. In other words, it will just be a waste of money and of no great significance. Again, the underlying assumption is that fuzzy-thinking scientists and a free spending government will just be throwing money away. That attitude illustrates the corrosive effect that years of anti-government, anti-science propaganda coming from the right has had on the public discourse.
Let's not forget after all, that it is largely the conservative movement that has attacked global climate change as a conspiracy by scientists willing to lie, fake data, and destroy opponents in order to keep a steady stream of government money flowing. The same movement that has crippled stem cell research for years. The same movement that keeps trying to get Darwin declared an unperson and ban the teaching of evolution. The same movement that considers any attention to the public good as an assault on their freedom and therefore Un-American.
It would have been trivial to write up this story as illustrating how years of starvation diets for research in America are leading to temporary institutional indigestion because of a one-time stimulus package. Instead it falls almost automatically into conservative tropes. Good luck seeing any continued funding for science if this prevails.