National Science Foundation Funds Study on "That’s What She Said” Use

Last year,  the federal government  funded  the National Science Foundation (NSF ) to the tune of $6.9 billion.  Each year, the NSF disburses much of this government funding in the form of grants.  These include graduate research fellowships.  According to the NSF, the grants “fund specific research proposals that have been judged the most promising by a rigorous and objective merit-review system.”

The University of Washington recently received graduate research fellowship funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in excess of $14 million.   The Computing Research Association received an additional $14 million grant from the NSF.  Ostensibly, projects funded by these grants  further the noble goals set forth by Congress in its establishment of this leading proponent of scientific research.   These goals are “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” A new study funded by these grants and published in the Proceedings of the 49th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics calls this presumption into question.

“That’s What She Said: Double Entendre Identification” summarizes research dedicated to the double entendre “that’s what she said”.  The researches assigned values for “noun sexiness”, “adjective sexiness”, and “verb sexiness”.  Once inserted into a mathematical equation, these values predict whether use of this double entendre would be appropriate.  According to Dr. Kiddon and Dr. Brun, “Experiments on web data demonstrate that our approach improves precision by 12% over baseline techniques that use only word-based features.”  Notably, the researches make no mention regarding how their research will advance the NSF’s stated goals of scientific progress, more secure national defense, or increased national prosperity.

A closer look at the Computing Innovations Fellows Project abstract provides insight into why these two researches received funding for a double entendre project.  According to the abstract,  “This project will forestall a permanent loss of research talent likely to occur if new PhDs are forced to seek employment outside of the field due to the sharp cuts brought about by the recent budget crisis…As a nation, we have invested time, energy, and funding in the training of these PhDs. Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to realize a payoff for that investment.”  In other words, the abstract requested money in order to retain researchers who could possibly find more productive employment in the private sector.  Any possible real-world benefit from the research seems merely an afterthought and quite secondary in purpose.

Lest we think this money was spent in vain, the government funded researches assure us that “The technique of metaphorical mapping may be generalized to identify other types of double entendres and other forms of humor.” Well said—and tax dollars well spent.