In May of 2010, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) unveiled YouCut, which he described as “a first-of-its-kind project designed to defeat the permissive culture of runaway spending in Congress”. The do-it-yourself program provides a weekly list of three to five proposals to reduce spending and allows anyone to vote, either online or via cell phone, for the most compelling proposal. House Republicans then force an up-or-down vote on the winning proposal in the House the following week.
Critics of YouCut point out that the spending reductions proposed by the program do not amount to significant savings. For example, this week’s winning cut, a plan to reduce the Department of Defense printing and reproduction budget by 10%, “would generate $35.7 million in savings in FY12, reaching nearly $180 million in savings through FY16”. This amounts to 0.0009% of the $4 trillion federal budget. Despite the potential for only incremental decreases in expenditures, YouCut has captured the attention of some; the most recent list of defunding options received over 150,000 online votes. Rep. Cantor’s website provides a list of the proposals earning the most online favor and tabulates the House votes on YouCut-proposed legislation. The YouCut scorecard for the 111th Congress may be found here.
The notion of promoting online civil engagement is noble, and if you set aside your concerns about the fact that anyone can vote in this experiment, YouCut is perhaps not such a bad idea. However, a recent spinoff of the YouCut program, YouCut Citizen Review, does warrant concern.
YouCut Citizen Review was announced in December of 2010 with the goal of identifying examples of waste at individual agencies. NSF has been selected as the first target of such scrutiny, and the YouCut website provides a link to NSF’s Award Search site, which lists NSF-funded projects. Participants are asked to click on the link. “If you find a grant that you believe is a waste of your tax dollars, be sure to record the award number,” the website suggests. “[W]e will publish a report outlining the grants identified by the YouCut community.” No such list has been made available yet, but it is already clear that many sound, peer-reviewed projects will be considered unworthy by politicians and the untrained YouCut reviewing community. For example, Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE), who introduced Citizen Review, draws attention to a $750,000 award for the development of computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players. He asks, “Should 75 families work all year to support soccer research?” Unfortunately, Rep. Smith’s inflammatory question is misleading. In an interview with Live Science, the lead investigator in the soccer study, Northwestern University engineering professor Luis Amaral, explained: “This was not $750,000 given by NSF for us to develop an algorithm to look at the performance of soccer players. This was $750,000 that was given to a larger team of researchers to study a very broad range of questions related to creating productive, efficient teams of researchers who innovate."
The reality is that, although they set the annual budget for NSF, Congress generally exerts little control over the agency’s internal grant awarding process. Still, the fallout from YouCut may result in Hill hearings at which NSF leadership is asked to defend funding decisions and may even result in prohibiting the expenditure of funding for certain “objectionable” programs. Given the current budget climate, science could do without the negative attention.