Conservatives vs. Research

A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 28 2013 3:28 PM

The Conservative War on Scientific Research

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Robot squirrel

NSF photo

The National Republican Campaign Committee is very upset today about wasteful government spending, including "a total of $325,000 to fund research on robotic squirrels." Clearly if there's money in the budget to fund robot squirrels and "nearly $1 million for NASA to develop a 'Mars Menu,' " there's no reason the Obama administration can't agree to an all-cuts approach to replacing sequestration cuts.

Conservatives certainly enjoy going back to this well. Most people agree that one of the most important things the federal government can do is fund basic scientific research. Knowledge is a public good—nonrival and nonexcludable so it's very important to find ways to produce it. Fortunately, philanthropists are happy to fund a lot of research with their charitable dollars. Also fortunately the government ponies up a lot of money for it. But the nature of a scientific research program is that it necessarily involves going a bit beyond the ordinary and conventional. Therefore enterprising political messaging operatives can scroll through a list of scientific research funding grants and find a few that sound funny and mock them.

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In this particular case what's happening is that the National Science Foundation is supporting Dr. Rulan Clark's research into the behavior of rattlesnakes. It seems that we actually don't know very much about rattlesnake behavior in general. The robotic squirrels are to help understand a particular aspect of predator-prey interaction in which the snake tries to kill the squirrel, and the squirrel tries to avoid getting killed.

Do we need to spend money on this? Obviously not. The world has been ignorant about the details of rattlesnake behavior for a long time, and if we halt all further progress in rattlesnake science, life will pretty much proceed the way it always has. On the other hand, you never really know what the benefits of understanding something new will be until you actually do the work and understand it. So that's your rattlesnake grant. The "Mars Menu" thing is even more obvious. Several years back NASA was directed to work on a manned mission to Mars, and figuring out what the astronauts should eat on such a mission is clearly going to have to be part of the work. Personally, I'm a bit skeptical about the value of manned space flight overall, and if we wanted to redirect all that money to basic scientific research (more robot squirrels in other words), I wouldn't have a huge problem with that. But canceling all NASA manned spaceflight undertakings is clearly a bigger argument than just saying "Mars Menu" and laughing.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.