Would scientists waste the people's money? Perish the thought!


WASHINGTON -- Political jabbing at the pomposities of science has become a lost art since Bill "Golden Fleece" Proxmire retired from the Senate in 1989.

Just recently, a heavy-handed attempt at a revival fizzled in Congress. It's unfortunate that it lacked Mr. Proxmire's finesse, because the science establishment has implanted the notion that anything labeled research merits a pass, if not reverence, and anyone who disagrees is a Neanderthal.

The brief and inconspicuous ruckus concerned an odd bit of political-science research financed by the $3-billion-a-year National Science Foundation, a mainstay of university-based science in virtually all fields.

With two grants totaling $175,000 spread over nearly four years, the foundation last year staked two professors who proposed a broad survey to identify citizens who are highly regarded in their communities; step two, ask them why they don't run for Congress. The findings would be confidential, and only statistical data would be released, according to the research plan.

The urgency of this inquiry in a period of straitened finance is arguable, as is the underlying premise, that highly regarded citizens choose not to run for Congress. When the project inevitably became known on Capitol Hill, it grated on basic political insecurities and triggered alarms.

A big problem in American politics, the project plan stated, is that "potentially strong candidates who might offer voters a significant alternative do not emerge to challenge the sitting member. The average challenger, therefore, is unqualified, underfunded and relatively invisible to the voters in the district."

The professors added that "The result is that House elections often are not competitive, and the choice voters make is distorted to the significant advantage of incumbents. This is the first investigation to identify and study a sample of strong potential candidates for the U.S. House, and will enhance substantially our understanding of the factors that influence candidate emergence in congressional elections."

A congressman aroused

The explosive response on Capitol Hill came from an exemplar of incumbency, 15-termer Rep. William Clay, a St. Louis Democrat, who declared that "during the last congressional election, thousands of people filed and campaigned for the 435 seats in Congress. One thing we, as Americans, have never been short of are politicians running for office," he stated.

A newspaper inquiry to one of the researchers reportedly brought the response that Representative Clay was "paranoid about someone running against him" -- an allegation denounced by Mr. Clay and 70 House colleagues in a collective letter.

Under attack, the National Science Foundation took the high road, explaining in a letter to each member of the House that the candidate study project was among 22 that passed scholarly muster in a field of 96 applications. The foundation added that while others have studied why people choose to run for office, the disputed project is unique in exploring "the reasons individuals do not run for office."

Interest in the candidate study quickly dribbled away. One reason is that science-based economic growth has led to unprecedented coziness between politics and science.

Another is the lack of the publicity-producing Proxmire touch. In 1987, Senator Proxmire denounced as "bull" a $10,000 grant for a study "of the bullfight in Spain as a manifestation of the national character." Hemingway had covered the subject, he said.

Regarding an $84,000 project for the study of romantic love, the jTC senator said, "Right at the top of things we don't want to know is why a man falls in love with a woman and vice versa."

Mr. Proxmire came to grief with his science sniping when, on a radio talk show in 1975, he poked fun at a researcher with $500,000 in government grants for studying frustration in monkeys. "The good doctor has made a fortune from his monkeys," he said, "and in the process made a monkey out of the American people." The Supreme Court ruled that the remarks were not covered by congressional immunity, and in 1980 Mr. Proxmire settled for $10,000.

But the retired senator left an important legacy that is unfortunately ignored: Science should not be regarded as beyond criticism or fun-poking, and skepticism about how scientists spend public money is not heresy.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

Pub Date: 8/19/97

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