From peer review to Citizen Reviews: The @%&#! are back!

“Attacking early research efforts as wasteful seems akin to telling 8-year-olds they shouldn’t waste their time dreaming about their future.”

But the merchants of ignorance, south of the border, are back gearing up for a new cycle. The new republican majority in the US has launched an Internet site “YouCut”, where citizens can propose targets for cutting government spending. Target number one: The National Science Foundation (NSF)

The last time this happened in Canada, back in 1995, the onus of finding gotcha-type research grants had fallen on the staffers of reform MP Randy White. Under the spiritual guidance of new majority leader-elect Eric Cantor, who is calling for a Citizen Review of Government Agencies to identify wasteful spending, Republican Congressman Adrian Smith, has decided to use modern technology (the internet), and go after the agency that funded most of the discoveries behind this modern technology. The NSF!

His instructions: I kid you not!

Step One: Look for Questionable Grants

Step Two: Submit Award Numbers

Then, he gives two examples of “questionable projects”, that his office had unearthed  (actually his spokesman declined to assign credit). Both are related to the mathematical sciences (statistical and computer science).

–       $750,000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players.

–       $1.2 million to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game industry.

The stories behind the story turned out to be even more pathetic than their Canadian counterparts. Indeed,

Soccer rankings and research dollars

The Soccer study was about developing efficient methods to evaluate the productivity of researchers and research institutions, by studying how teams collaborate. By trying to quantify researchers’ contributions to their fields, the researchers hoped to help funding agencies like the NSF allocate money more effectively. Why Soccer? Because they were trying to evaluate teamwork, and team performance in Soccer is among the hardest to rank using regular statistical methods. ” … We just knew who was in a team and how the outcome was, but we didn’t know how the team members had interacted.”

As is often the case, there were wider implications of the study, since the resulting rankings piqued interest in the private sector. Several European companies are now asking to commercialize the technique.

Virtual sounds

The goal of the research in Smith’s second target was to create advanced simulation technology for virtual environments. Cornell’s computer scientist and lead investigator, Doug James, explains.

Right now, computers can’t render sound the way they do graphics — sounds get dubbed in later. That makes it tough to match the sound to the action, making the virtual environment less immersive. “I want to be able to simulate realistic virtual physical systems that look, move and sound realistic,” James said.

“Just think of the impact of computer-graphics rendering, and now imagine the combined potential for realistic computer-sound rendering,” he said, citing possible uses of realistic simulations for engineering cars, aircraft and even spacecraft. “The results may also be useful in designing rehabilitation and training simulations like those used in the military. Even robots could become better at navigating their environments with higher-level sound processing“.

James also defended research benefiting the movie and video game industry, a “nearly one-hundred billion dollar industry when combined,” he said. “Computer science students educated by NSF grants go on to innovate at influential companies like Pixar.”

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2 Responses to From peer review to Citizen Reviews: The @%&#! are back!

  1. Pingback: Empowering knowledge and informed consent (I) | Piece of Mind

  2. Pingback: Words to avoid when you are writing a research grant proposal | Piece of Mind

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