Monday, November 4, 2013

Republicans Hate Social Science

Republican Representatives Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith have authored an Op-Ed in USA Today arguing that the US should focus its scientific research spending on "improving Americans' quality of life." By this they seem to mean hard science that may lead to improved technology. They are not happy that the National Science Foundation funds social science that seems frivolous to them, and they are demanding changes in how that institution sets its priorities.
While the NSF spends most of its funds well, we have recently seen far too many questionable grants, especially in the social, behavioral and economic sciences. Research on subjects such as animal photos in National Geographic may sound interesting, but how does the federal government justify spending over $220,000 on such an endeavor? Additional examples of questionable NSF research grants include topics such as:
  •  Rangeland management in Mongolia $1,499,718 
  • History of Chiapas, Mexico (350 BC-1350 AD) $280,558 
  • Mayan architecture and the salt industry $233,141 
  • Metallurgy in Russia (2100-1500 BC) $134,354 
  • Bronze Age in Cyprus $197,127 
  • Eco consequences of early human-set fires in New Zealand $339,958 
  • Study of the Gamo caste system in Ethiopia $258,639 
  • Causes of stress in Bolivia $19,684 
  • Auto shows in China $19,975 
We all believe in academic freedom for scientists, but federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used on such research instead of on higher priorities.
This is not a new debate; I remember that back in the 70s William Proxmire gave one of his Golden Fleece awards to a study of brothels in Peru. (These were really more like men's clubs than brothels, and the point was to figure out whether women couldn't break into Peruvian politics because it was all carried on in the men's clubs.) To a certain sort of American conservative, there is something offensive about paying sociologists and anthropologists to indulge their curiosity about humanity.

According to Cantor and Smith, they asked the NSF to justify these projects but got no response. And what response could be given? Either you believe that curiosity about our fellow humans is a good way to spend a few million federal dollars every year, or you don't. If you don't, you will not be convinced by any explanation of how these research projects fit into (for example) our understanding of how civilizations developed in Central America.

Science has two purposes: to understand the world, because we just like understanding the world, and to lead to new technologies. In some sciences (chemistry, say) research done from pure curiosity may lead to new technologies down the line somewhere. But in some areas this is highly unlikely. Consider the exploration of other star systems. Under what conceivable scenario will the discovery of planets a  hundred light years away improve Americans' "quality of life"? NASA spends far more on such exploration than the NSF has ever spent on social science. For that matter, so does the NSF; this year its funding for telescopes alone exceeds its spending on social science. What about deep sea exploration? Any likely economic uses for vampire squid?

If we are going to spend money on fundamentally useless science, why not archaeology? Why is it somehow less worthy than deep sea vents and star formation? The amount of money involved here is tiny, less than $100 million a year out of an NSF budget of $7.6 billion, which is in turn dwarfed by the NIH budget for medical research. The animus can't really be driven by fiscal concerns. Part of it must be politics, in the sense that most social scientists are leftists and many are frankly seeking to advance left-wing political goals; why fund your enemies? But it seems to me to be more emotional and deeper than that; a sort of distaste for the frivolity of people who don't think like real Americans but expect real Americans to fund their personal crusades.

If Cantor and Smith were really interested in saving money, instead of exercising their prejudices or scoring cheap political points by mocking silly-sounding research grants, they would defund the International Space Station. Now there's a boondoggle I would happily cast aside.

1 comment:

leif said...

can i sit in both camps? i would like to see NSF grants going to proposals that tend to focus the incredible brain power of our researchers into work that will truly benefit our health, our well-being, our understanding of our biology, how our planet runs, and so on. at the same time, i'm distressed by the thought that such selectivity tends to invite politics into the selection committees and also results in the sorry mess that canada's federally funded scientists find themselves in.