Political Science is Not Alone

by Henry Farrell on April 25, 2013 · 7 comments

in Academia

Via Scott Aaronson, Congressional pushback against NSF funding has expanded past the social sciences.

Yesterday, over the course of two contentious hearings, the new chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology floated the idea of having every NSF grant application include a statement of how the research, if funded, “would directly benefit the American people.” Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that he was not trying to “micromanage” the $7 billion agency but that NSF needs to do a better job of deciding what to fund given the low success rates for grant applicants and a shrinking federal budget. … The morning hearing examined the president’s overall 2014 budget request for science and featured presidential science adviser John Holdren. The afternoon hearing focused on NSF’s 2014 budget request. The timing gave Republican legislators the chance to level a double-barreled attack on several grants in the social sciences that NSF has awarded in recent years. … Instead of confining himself to social science research, as he and his Republican colleagues had done during the morning hearing with Holdren, Smith focused on NSF’s entire portfolio in his afternoon comments to acting NSF Director Cora Marrett and Dan Arvizu, chair of the National Science Board that oversees NSF. … Later in the hearing, Smith made the case for a new yardstick with which to measure an NSF grant that would focus on its likely contribution to “the national interest.” … Smith has a ready vehicle for implementing his suggestions. Committee staff members are already working on legislation that “authorizes”—or creates a legal framework—for NSF’s programs.

{ 7 comments }

Matt April 25, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Biased view of course since I’m a near-completion PhD student in statistics focusing on computational biology and strongly considering staying in academia (thus requiring NIH and NSF funding). But of all things to focus your pick-and-choose anti-government ideology on, this just seems so pathetic, short-sighted, and simply stupid.

Sure it’s easy to pick on a good portion of the social science research funded by the NSF funding, and super easy to cherry pick some particularly ridiculous examples, and I’m about as anti-economist as they come among physical and biological scientists. But the strains of economics for which I have special disdain are largely those driven by invention of mathematical models used to prove ideological priors with no regard to whether said models have anything to do with the real world. And it’s exactly those economists who’ve supplied the intellectual foundation for the kind of fact-free ideological assertions loved by these very legislators!

Expanding out into the non-social sciences funded by the NSF is extra mind-boggling. What’s the goal? Pushing the country back into some mythical pre-industrial utopia?

Andrew Gelman April 25, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Matt:

I think one of the goals is to reduce the resources of academia, which is a left-leaning segment of society.

RobC April 25, 2013 at 4:01 pm

It’s perhaps worth pointing out that NSF grants already are awarded according to two merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. With respect to the latter, the NSF explains, “The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.”

Though the language “directly benefit the American people” is not synonymous with “benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes,” it’s not awfully different. My suspicion is that most grant applicants will have to change very little in their applications to make their case that their project qualifies.

Andreas Moser April 25, 2013 at 4:04 pm

If only governments knew that with all this funding for science, maths and IT, they are rearing the next generation of terrorists, who hail predominantly from these faculties: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/geeks-are-killing-us/ Philosophers or political scientists hardly ever blow something up.

Lohith Ramanujam April 25, 2013 at 4:13 pm

It appears as if the earnest campaigns of public intellectuals and scientists to impart the value of basic research into the general public has failed, unless it can somehow fall under the aegis of defense spending or be privatized.

Is it possible that there hasn’t been an effective or appropriate educational campaign to inform the public of what’s at stake, or is it the case that the audience simply isn’t receptive in the face of other narratives?

Henry Farrell April 25, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Andreas – you know the Gambetta and Herzog work on this, right?

JC April 25, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Republicans on House SST have been angling to reduce support for NSF for several years now. I’d urge anyone interested to read the transcripts of SST hearings on NSF functions and grants over the last several years.

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