Amid all the big news, a few disturbing trends in scientific research might go unnoticed. Tom Coburn, Republican Senator from Oklahoma has hated the idea of the National Science Foundation funding political science research for a long time, and he’s tried many times to block it. His pet peeve is now embodied in US law, after an amendment he offered to a must-past bill — the continuing resolution for the 2013 US government fiscal year — passed on a vioce vote. The amendment effectively kills NSF support for political science research.
This may be just the first stage of a gradual attrition of support for social science in general,as Ziyad Marar suggests.
Some claim that social science research creates just the kind of robust theory and evidence we see in natural science, while others claim that natural science is riven with the same uncertainties as social science.
These arguments (often seen as mere physics envy) have clearly failed to impress legislators in the US or, indeed, public opinion. Why? Because, while it is true that some areas of overlap can blur the picture, it is daft to argue that there are no differences. The uncertainties of physicists in pursuit of the Higgs Boson, or breast cancer researchers in pursuit of new genetic therapies, are significantly different from those of social scientists trying to explain far more unruly phenomena.
If we don’t accept this, then we are entitled to criticise political scientists who failed to predict the end of the cold war, or to sympathise with a bewildered Queen Elizabeth who turned to the assembled scholars at the LSE [London Stock Exchange] at the time of the economic crisis to ask: “Why did nobody warn us?” One sceptical wag accordingly caricatures the social scientific enterprise as “slow journalism”.“Understanding physics is child’s play compared to understanding child’s play.” - Albert Einstein
If we don’t start to see how social science broadly differs from natural science it will be easy to relegate the former to a deservedly poor cousin of the latter. A better answer would be to focus on the nature of the problem domains that each of the many disciplines are engaged with – and to point out that social science is just harder because the data is more unruly. As Albert Einstein once put it “understanding physics is child’s play compared to understanding child’s play”.
To try to understand child’s play (or wellbeing, or conflict resolution, or social mobility, or the causes of crime, political persuasion, racism or, indeed, the end of the cold war) is to grapple with “wicked problems”. These, while critically important to analyse, are human problems which don’t often have right or wrong answers and don’t tend to offer up easy scientific laws. But they can have better or worse answers and their study can cumulatively deepen our understanding over time, even if the impact is often relatively slow, diffuse and hard won. Along the way social scientists often introduce concepts that articulate and frame public debates and encourage critical, nuanced thinking.
A social scientific scrutiny of the human, rather than natural, world doesn’t easily lend itself to generalisable laws, cast-iron predictions, nor can it always preserve a distinction between fact and value. Defenders of social science need to say that, and to argue that careful, theoretically and methodologically rigorous exploration of these subjects are fundamental to a healthy society even if finding unarguable evidence is extremely difficult.
I doubt that the GOP know-nothings are going to be swayed by musing on the long-term societal impacts of inquiry into the way people interact, and how we seek meaning, or organize ourselves to cooperate. Coburn and company probably won’t buy it.
The NSF, according to Henry Farrell, provides 61% of basic research funding in US social science, and this is the start of a slippery slope leading to a politicized environment for social science:
Henry Farrell, Tom Coburn Doesn’t Like Political Science
Publicly supported academic research is, and should be, democratically accountable. Yet politicians have wisely delegated the particulars of funding lines to the scientific community. Politicians are not scientists, and do not have the expertise to judge which research areas and questions are promising and which are not.
The Coburn amendment changes that. It imposes crude political criteria on scientific grant making, arbitrarily decreeing that social scientists cannot get funds for studying key aspects of politics. It is clear that Coburn’s ambitions stretch far beyond the social sciences. In previous reports he has attacked the NSF for purportedly useless research in robotics, biology, and other areas of the natural sciences.
If this precedent is not reversed, it will probably be expanded in unhappy ways. Politicians will attach ever-more-onerous conditions to NSF funds, in order to make sure that research they like gets money, while research that they dislike does not. Politicians should not micromanage the grant-making process. They are likely to not only misunderstand the science but use their influence to mischaracterize good research in attempts to score political points.
In the worst-case scenario, Coburn’s amendment could also set a dangerous precedent for academic research in general. Introducing political micromanagement into a system that should be governed by scientific criteria would essentially politicize science. The NSF finances important research in politically controversial areas such as climate science, biology, and evolutionary science. To date, the NSF has been able to shield grant-making decisions in those areas from broader political acrimony. Politicians who deny global warming and evolution have not wanted to seem overtly anti-science, and have refrained from direct attack.
I bet we can expect meddling in those areas too. Why not? After all, that would be the worst possible thing to do, and that seems like the direction that the GOP would like things to go, apparently.