I'm a fan of Rand Paul. And I'm not the only one. The 2016 presidential contender's headstrong, shoot-from-the-hip style in the face of orthodoxy is finding its mark among younger voters, a rarity for a Republican. The Kentucky senator embodies a new type of politics — a cocktail of classical conservatism and libertarianism with just a twist of liberalism for good, electable measure.

And yet, for all his promise, Paul continues to cling to some jarringly conventional ideas.

Take his parroting of the supposedly "conservative" notion that the government should shy away from large-scale, federally funded science initiatives. No doubt, federal funding for science projects is not perfect. Some of these initiatives seem frivolous, their price tags bloated. I mean, really: $700,000 for a musical about climate change is sure to raise eyebrows among the fiscal hawks in Washington. But Paul still uses far too broad a brush to demonize a worthy enterprise, one that all conservatives should hold dear; slashing the budget of the National Science Foundation by 62 percent is a dangerous stroke indeed.

Taking shots at federal research and development is a common campaign theme among the right's more visible spokesmen. Paul has called for reductions to multiple scientific agencies. Ted Cruz told NASA to steer clear of climate science. Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) singled out the National Science Foundation. Ron Paul and Rick Perry have gotten in on the anti-science action, too.

At the heart of this rhetoric is the conservative notion that large-scale, government-funded science is illustrative of our bloated federal budget. The overwhelmingly liberal political affiliation of today's scientific community is likely a contributing factor as well. It's secular eggheads versus God-fearing accountants.

But it needn't be this way. Government-funded science shouldn't be a partisan issue. There is a very strong conservative case for government-backed science.

Conservatives love to laud American exceptionalism — the belief that America is a unique experiment in the history of the world and one that by its very nature is designed to outshine the rest of the globe. America leads because its society and systems are superior. And there is little denying that large-scale federal science has had a great hand in positioning the country as the leading military and economic power over the last several decades.

For all of the success experienced by this country in terms of free markets and industrialization, it was federally funded research that led to the construction of the most powerful weapon in history; that put a man on the moon; laid the foundation for the internet; mapped the human genome; and confirmed the existence of water on Mars.

This excellence is largely born out of America's world-leading universities. America boasts 46 of the top 100 universities in the world. Many of these schools are public. But even the private universities benefit greatly from federal funding for fundamental and applied research. In fact, Uncle Sam has historically been the largest funding source for American university research and development.

The popular and predictable rebuttal among the diehard right invokes the free market as the better option: The federal government is too big and bloated — and therefore incapable of efficiently spending federal dollars on worthwhile research. That knock on our government is certainly true in many contexts — but big science isn't one of them. The goals of SpaceX are profit-driven and its research proprietary. NASA's exploration of deep space, however, follows the more noble aim of science for science's sake, and makes each and every American taxpayer a part of the real-time unraveling of the heavens' secrets. The knowledge is there for all who seek it because we paid for it.

Conservatives have likewise largely maintained their zeal for military spending while detesting all other forms of government-financed scientific endeavor. But make no mistake: The weapons that make America the greatest military power in the history of the world are designed around fundamental scientific principles. And the nuclear fission process that paved the way for America's atomic bomb also drives the civilian nuclear power industry.

And yet, the antagonism persists.

Is it possible that conservative ire toward big-government science has nothing to do with money after all? Absolutely. After all, some future discovery could greatly conflict with the commonly held religious beliefs that the Republican Party's enormous evangelical base hold so dear. Just the same, such a discovery could potentially reinforce those beliefs, too.

Whatever the case, opposition to government-funded science is simply antithetical to true patriotism, at least the kind popular among much of the Republican Party.

Yes we, as Americans, and particularly as conservatives, should be wary of how our tax dollars are spent, and we should always hold the government accountable. But we should not let stereotypes get in the way of national success. Nor should we reject projects that benefit not only us, but the technological prowess that has made America the dominant power for nearly a century, and in turn made the world a better place.

If America is to remain exceptional, we must continue to invest in understanding the world in which we live and the technology necessary to improve our lives. If we don't, someone else will.