APS News

Science Collides with Politics

By Michael Lucibella

Tension between the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the scientific community is running at its highest level in years. A Republican-led effort to investigate nearly 60 National Science Foundation (NSF) grants has upset scientists and science advocacy organizations.

Starting in April 2013, the chair of the committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), began requesting the confidential merit review documents used to decide on a number of NSF grants. After a brief fight between the NSF and the committee, the funding agency allowed committee workers to inspect copies of the documents at NSF headquarters, with the names and identifying information of the peer reviewers expunged. The ranking member on the committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), criticized Smith’s requests, saying it was destructive to the peer review process.

Smith soon expanded the scope of his inquiry beyond the initial five grants he named in April. Altogether, the committee has asked for the documents of about 60 NSF grants that he calls “questionable.”

Thus far, physics research has largely escaped the scrutiny of Smith and the committee. No grants from the NSF Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences have been called into question; the vast majority that have been questioned come from the social, behavioral and economic sciences, or education and human resources directorates. The committee has asked for the paperwork on nine grants from the geosciences, engineering, and computer and information sciences directorates.

The NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences has been the target of repeated Republican attempts to dramatically reduce or eliminate its budget.

On November 10, the Association of American Universities released a statement critical of Smith’s actions. In it, the Association said that it was concerned that such investigations were damaging to academic freedom and would lead researchers to pursue only “safe” research that doesn’t attract political attention.

“The choice of grants the committee has targeted is certainly puzzling,” the statement read. “Several projects are being investigated for no apparent reason other than the sound of their titles. Others are studies related to climate change or to the study of any countries other than the United States.”

Smith responded that he was performing the duty of his office to oversee the money spent on grants by the NSF. “Researchers are free in our country to study any subject they like, but when taxpayers finance scientific endeavors, they are entitled — legally and morally — to know how their money is spent,” Smith said in a statement.

The most recent grant to come under the Science Committee’s microscope is a project at the University of Indiana called “Truthy,” a reference to the term “truthiness” coined by the comedian Stephen Colbert. The research studies the way information flows through social media, particularly Twitter.

“Every year we see research projects criticized and ridiculed based on the reading of titles or on details taken out of context,” the team said in an email to APS News. “We must not forget that subject-matter experts have to be involved in these discussions before jumping to conclusions.”

One of the head researchers on the project, Alessandro Vespignani, a physicist at Northeastern University, has been at the forefront of modeling the potential spread of Ebola using similar methods. Two of the other co-principal investigators, Alessandro Flammini and Filippo Menczer of Indiana University, have received funding for similar research from a number of other federal agencies, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Institutes of Health.

Controversy about the project ignited on October 17, when Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, penned an editorial in the Washington Post criticizing the research as an attempt to mold the political dialogue of the country. Smith followed up soon afterwards, criticizing the work as well.

“The government has no business using taxpayer dollars to support limiting free speech on Twitter and other social media,” Smith said in a statement. “While the Science Committee has recently looked into a number of other questionable NSF grants, this one appears to be worse than a simple misuse of public funds. The NSF is out of touch and out of control. The Science Committee is investigating how this grant came to be awarded taxpayer dollars.”

Members of Truthy deny the accusations by Smith and Pai. “Truthy is a set of research projects whose common thread is to study the diffusion of information in online social media,” the team said in an email to APS News. “We were not contracted by the federal government to build tools or websites to track political speech. We do have a website to showcase some demos related to our research. All of our projects are based on public data available from Twitter and vetted by an ethics board, so we don’t monitor users without their consent. Our analyses and tools do not intervene in online conversations, so the complaints about impinging on free speech are unfounded.”

One of the demonstrations featured on the Truthy website is its “BotOrNot” app. It uses the team’s analysis of the behavior of Twitter users to predict if a particular account is operated by a human being or an algorithm. The team’s “Political Topics” section of their website, which has been subsequently taken down, analyzed the most popular political topics, how sentiments changed over time, who were the most influential users, and the dynamics of spreading information.

“[W]e examine statistical patterns of how memes spread through social media networks. Our research is thus entirely apolitical. In a few papers we did report on observations in the realm of politics as an application of our analysis, but those resulted directly from the data without any editorial process about what they could or should represent.”

Shortly after publicly criticizing the work, Smith sent the NSF a request to review the peer review documents of the Truthy team. “The committee and taxpayers deserve to know how NSF decided to award a large grant for a project that proposed to develop standards for online political speech and to apply those standards through development of a website that targeted conservative political comments,” Smith said in a letter to the NSF.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella
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