Reason Enough?

An interesting couple of articles on the Scientific America blog site dealing with the same topic – the recent publication by Senator Tom Coburn of the annual Wastebook, which details what Coburn sees as wasteful government spending.  The particular issue that spurred these blog posts has to do with a National Institute of Health study on the effects of cocaine in promoting greater sexual activity.  The study utilized Japanese quail as the test subjects, and  is set to cost taxpayers about $350,000 over several years.  

The first blog accuses Coburn of attempting to rile up the peasants against the “pointy heads” for the purpose of politicking.  He blames this sort of thing on GOP leaders and seems to see no purpose for it.  It must only be a political scheme, in other words, because apparently there’s no possibility that the government might actually be wasting money.  I’d suggest reviewing Coburn’s list.  While it’s not exhaustive or terribly detailed, it is helpful to see the role that government has come to play in our culture.  A pervasive role.  
So there are apparently some rather fundamental ideological issues that set the author at odds with Coburn to begin with.  That’s good to note.  But then the author goes off on rather a red herring.  He seems to assume that Coburns main beef is with the use of Japanese quail as test subjects.  So this author goes on to explain at great length why Japanese quail are such good test subjects (you can snuggle with them before you force them to ingest cocaine and then split their brains open to study the neorological changes the drug might have instigated!).  Not surprisingly, the author has worked extensively with Japanese quail and understands their particular usefulness.
This is all well and good.  I don’t think that Coburn’s main complaint is that the study is using Japanese quail.  I think his main complaint is that the government is paying for birds to take cocaine and then have sex.  Let me correct that last statement – you and I are paying for birds to take cocaine and then have sex.  
The government is not, Constitutionally, some foreign third-party entity that makes decisions that are fundamentally separated from you and I.  Our government is an outgrowth of you and I.  The expression of what we value and prioritize.  At least it should be.  Whether it has ever truly been this is of course open to debate, and postmodernists will likely be quick to assert that such an understanding has never been the practical truth.  But it’s true that as citizens become less occupied with government, then those who are in government – and those who wish government to do very specific things – take on a disproportionate level of importance.  It can reasonably be argued that in a population of over 300 million, this is necessarily so.  Perhaps.  But it is particularly galling to be told by the recipients of my tax dollars that I am a stupid peasant who has no understanding of why the government must fund this sort of research.  
The next article goes into great detail defending the study and why it is important.  As near as I can tell, he makes his defense without ever quoting from or referring to the actual study in question.  As near as I can tell, he is providing his defense for why a study of this sort might be useful.  There’s nothing that he says or links to in his blog that actually demonstrates that his explanation of the study is actually what the study says about itself and what it hopes to accomplish.  He quotes the principal author of the study, but it is not clear if he is quoting him from another context, another document, a personal interview, or what.  There is no footnoting documentation to explain the source of the quote and it’s context, and ultimately, the quote doesn’t really say anything substantial about the study itself.
The author does a good job of building a case for why it is important to do this sort of study.  There is of course a rationale, and as he mentions, there is a rather brutal peer-review process that determines which studies get NIH funding.  Somebody – multiple somebodies – obviously thought this was important.  I have no doubt that there is information to be gained from the study, though I assume that whatever information is gained will require additional research and testing before we can reliably apply it to ourselves.  
Coburn is not ultimately, I suspect, saying that there is no reason for this study to exist.  What he is questioning is whether, given the state of our nation’s finances (which are my finances and your finances, remember), such a study – and 99 other examples of curious government-funded projects – is warranted.  There are a great many things that could be learned and studied given unlimited funding.  But funding is not unlimited.  In fact, we’re borrowing ourselves into debt at an alarming rate.  While I am not a scientist, I have an understanding of financial realities that says spending more than I earn for long periods of time will ultimately result in me not being able to spend at all.  On a more national level, if the system that supports all these projects – for better or worse – collapses, then nothing gets funded.  Lots of scientists get to go look for other jobs.  
To quote Coburn’s introduction to his report:
Ask yourself as you review each of the entries outlined in this report:  
  • Can we afford these things when we are running annual deficits in excess of $1 trillion?
  • Do these initiatives match your understanding of the role of the federal government as outlined by the Enumerated Powers of the U.S. Constitution?  
  • Do these represent national priorities or do they reflect the wasteful spending habits threatening to bankrupt the future of the American Dream?
(I bolded the one I think is a key consideration point)
Scientists are not bad people.  Science is not bad.  Whether the US Government should be funding it or not is another matter up for serious discussion.  Whether it should or not, what has to be recognized by ALL aspects of our government complex is that while there are good arguments to be made for many – perhaps all – things our government does, we simply cannot continue to do them all.  I suspect that it’s the mindset that separates government from the people it governs that allows good people to make reasonable arguments that contradict reason.  These authors feel it is very warranted for you and I to fund this sort of study.  They make a cogent argument for it.  But the fact remains that we cannot indefinitely fund good ideas with money we don’t have.  
It would have been nice to see a more nuanced understanding of this in these two blog entries, rather than the defiant insistence that any criticism or questioning of scientific studies somehow equates to storming the laboratories with pitchforks and torches.  I suspect it’s that attitude itself that engenders the desire to smash and burn, and that’s lamentable from all sides of the issue.

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