National Science Foundation
Americans are good at a lot of things – business, football, eating, and making muscle cars, to name a few.
Want to know something thing we’re not good at? Science. For all of our money and international prowess, America is ranked just 17th in the world in science education. Not good.
In 2010, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called America’s mediocre educational rankings “an absolute wake-up call for America.”
“The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth,” Duncan said. “We have to get more serious about investing in education.”
Well, here we are four years later and still not doing much better. The National Science Foundation just released the results of their latest scientific survey, and the findings are embarrassing. Let’s take a look at what some of our fellow countrymen and women think about science.
One in four Americans doesn’t realize the earth revolves around the sun. Let that sink in. It’s been over 400 years since Copernicus proved that all planets revolve around the sun, yet over a quarter of people in the richest nation on earth don’t know it.
21% of respondents answered that the sun revolves around the earth, while 7% were humble enough to admit they didn’t know the answer.
Next up: light.
Despite the best efforts of Queen, Chris Brown, and your science teacher, nearly one in four Americans doesn’t know that light travels faster than sound. It is a basic fact that nothing in the known universe travels faster than the speed of light. Einstein told us this over 100 years ago.
Here are two more head-shaking findings.
63% of respondents thought antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
43% said that electrons – tiny, negatively charged particles inside of atoms – were bigger than atoms. 37% were unsure which particles were bigger, and just 20% answered the question correctly.
The survey asked participants nine basic scientific questions. The average score was a 6.5 out of 9 – good for a 72%. America was three points away from getting a D on a test of things we should have learned in 5th grade.
Republican Bill Would Force National Science Foundation To Justify Basic Research As Serving "National Interest"
With their bizarre and often blatantly incorrect positions on such scientific issues as climate change and evolution, congressional and state Republicans have shown a disregard and even ignorance of how science operates. Now Republicans in the House of Representatives want to impose a requirement on the National Science Foundation that professional scientists are calling “nonsense.”
The NSF awards grants to scientists for basic research projects. Basic research is directed at exploring purely scientific question, without regard for their practical applications. That isn’t because scientists don’t care about the practicalities, but rather, that the applications cannot come until later, once basic questions have been addressed.
The Republicans have put forth a bill dubbed the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2013, which would impose a “national interest” requirement on the NSF, but it goes a step further than the laws governing grant awards that are already in place.
According to the scientific journal Nature, the law would require any experiments funded by the NSF to meet at least one of six criteria: economic competitiveness, health and welfare, scientific literacy, partnerships between academia and industry, promotion of scientific progress and national defense.
The NSF already must meet those criteria, more or less, by requiring researchers applying for grants to describe the “broader impacts” of their research on their applications.
But most scientists fail to take that requirement seriously. Few scientists can predict exactly where their research will lead, causing the to essentially B.S. their way through the “broader impacts” section.
"All scientists know it’s nonsense,” says John Bruer, former co-chair of an NSF task force on broader impacts.
Under the proposed law, the NSF would now be required to publicly document, on its web site, the “national interest” justification for each grant.
Scientists say the requirement runs counter to the NSF’s mission of promoting scientific progress for its own sake.
“Conducting cutting-edge science is clearly in the national interest,” says former NSF program director Scott Collins.
The National Science Foundation recently spent $384,949 on a Yale University study that took a look at the wild world of duck penises. News of the study was picked up by conservative media outlets, and many readers and listeners are complaining that the study exemplifies unnecessary government spending.
Fox News put a poll on its website asking readers to vote on whether the study represents a useful or wasteful use of government funds. A mere 3.87 percent of respondents said the study was a good use of federal money, 8.77 percent said they were not sure, and a whopping 87.36 percent of readers said the study was a waste of government money.
Others are laughing off the outcry over the study, saying that scientific research is an essential part of an educated society while pointing out that $384,949 represents no more than 0.0000001 of this year’s federal budget.
Science writer Carl Zimmer thinks studies like these are more important than people may initially realize.
“Studying animals is also a way for us to look in the evolutionary mirror,” he said. “We share a common ancestor with other animals, and the same kinds of evolutionary processes play out in both us and them.”
“Now, you may wonder what ducks — with gigantic cork-screw-shaped penises and a gigantic cork-screw-shaped reproductive tracts — could possibly have to do with us,” Zimmer continued. “The manifestation of sex evolution may be different in different species. But the process is similar.”
Monetary issues aside, the study found out some pretty interesting things about duck mating. Forced copulation, a fancy term for rape, accounts for about 50 percent of duck mating occurrences. But only 2 to 4 percent of duck pregnancies occur from forced copulation.
As Zimmer said above, the duck has a cork-screw shaped penis. To avoid getting pregnant from an unwanted male, female ducks have evolved vaginas that can block the male ducks advances.
“This is literally anti-screw anatomy,” lead researcher Richard Prum said.
So although human females — despite Todd Akin’s best wishes — don’t have “ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” ducks do. This fun bit of information might be worth the $384,949 cost of the study alone.
Regardless of the study’s findings, one thing is clear here: Our country has much bigger fiscal problems to worry about than a $384,949 duck penis study. Social security, the sequester, and the national debt all come to mind.
Personally, I’d think of this study in the same way I think of Joe Biden’s hotel bills: eye-catching and quirky, but far from anything to get upset about when it comes to America’s financial woes.