Government-Funded Science: Monitoring What You Say On Twitter

Kevin Glass

8/26/2014 11:35:00 AM - Kevin Glass
The Washington Free Beacon yesterday reported on researchers at Indiana University, supported by a National Science Foundation grant, creating a database of "political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution" - called "Truthy":

The National Science Foundation is financing the creation of a web service that will monitor “suspicious memes” and what it considers “false and misleading ideas,” with a major focus on political activity online.

...

“This service could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate,” the grant said.

There might be a good reason to do this study. Scientists are often interested in all sorts of ways that modern technology affects communication. What does seem clear is that this is, at best, on the fringes of what should be considered for publicly-funded research. If there's a public goods angle here, it's difficult to see.

This represents a major PR problem for government-funded science. On the one hand, many people think there's value in government money being used for science research. On the other hand, stretching it to funding databases of hate-tweets and shrimp treadmills sure makes it seem like there's probably a better use for public money.

That there's also a role for private science research is beyond the grasp of a lot of people. Sam Stein at the Huffington Post, riffing off Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski, finds it notable that politicians voluntarily donated money to scientific research while at the same time voting to cut a small amount of money from some government science agencies - like the very same National Science Foundation that funded the Twitter hate-tweet study.

Even in the face of silly-sounding research, members of Congress are accused of being "anti-science" when they vote to trim science funding. There's little agreement on what the optimal level of science funding is, but the U.S. isn't exactly trailing the rest of the world here:

Perhaps there's more and better research that the U.S. could be doing. But the fastest-growing portion of scientific research has been government funding:

That second image is from National Science Foundation data. The first is from R&D Magazine. Both come from this Science article.

In a hypothetical world in which the government instituted a 100% effective tax rate on everyone and, after defense and transfers, spent the rest of GDP on scientific research, we should all aspire to be anti-science. But we live in a world where we are slightly above the OECD pack in research spending/GDP, and a certain amount of that spending looks a little ludicrous to the public's eyes. And there's nothing at all hypocritical about acknowledging a separate role for applied science in the form of ALS research while representing a public that raises its eyebrows at duck phallus research.