A large part of Green Earth presented a reality where the National Science Foundation (NSF) is more public-facing and political the current status quo. There are benefits to both the current model and the one presented in Green Earth.
In defense of the current system at NSF:
The primary job of a scientist is not to be a politician, policymaker or a thought leader – although they are not precluded from being so. There are huge advantages to having scientists involved in the political process. Ideally, they are the experts that inform commonsense policy. However, the notion that NSF should set an agenda (and therefore become outwardly political) is a dangerous path. Ultimately, the NSF is subservient to the executive branch in very concrete ways (the director is appointed by the president) and the NSF budget is approved by the legislative branch. Becoming actively political is fine when the scientific community and the majority of elected officials agree – however, the current status on climate change shows how this is often not the case. A loud, public disagreement could result in budget slashes and fundamental changes to how NSF is run.
Instead, let the political side of science happen on the back-end of research – enable platforms on which the scientific community can become more effective at disseminating their findings to the general public.
Improvements to the current system:
Improve the platforms which scientists can disseminate results: Academic journals are great for those that are already deeply embedded in the specialized field, however, often research is not effectively shared beyond these mysterious academic groups. With the advent of social media and instantaneous access to information, the scientific community could be doing more in this regard.
Encourage revolutionary research: Much of the current NSF funding is traditional in nature, 3-4 year grants to build on pre-existing knowledge in very discrete academic silos. The truth is most revolutionary technologies have come from radical thinking across disciplines rather than the methodical plodding of traditional academia. Aggressive Grand Challenge programs like DARPA and XPRIZE have accelerated development of technologies such as autonomous cars and commercial space travel. High-risk companies like Google’s X and Elon Musk’s Tesla, OpenAI and SpaceX have succeeded capitalizing upon these kinds of Grand Challenges. With the resources that the NSF has, it can afford to fail on many aggressive awarded grants – however, if 10% of grants begin to actually solve the big issues we face’
Work quickly for the longterm with friendly administrations: Often sciences related to the physical world require longterm studies – fund these studies for longer periods of time so that investments are not lost when unfriendly adminstrations enforce cutting og funding. Work with adminstrations to create legislation that protects the independence (and therefore integrity) of the scientific community.