The unpredictability of scientific discovery

Each week, Symposium’s blog highlights comments about the week’s featured article. This week’s piece is “The War on Social Science.”

From a reader comment posted on July 11:

Would the “next Google” not see the light of day due to applying the national security/economic standard only to federal funding of political science? Would it not see the light of day even if the security/economic interests standard were applied to all NSF funding, which doesn’t sound likely in any event? If so, what’s the evidence to support name-dropping Google? Surely DARPA would have survived such a constraint.

If Congress pushed viewpoint-based guidelines on political science funding, that would be an issue for me right off the bat. But why not limit the role of federal funding in political science and lower the potential for conflict that arises when those who may be studied have to decide whether to fund that study?

 Prof. Wilson’s response:

Your comment raises two important points. First, would a general standard of security/economic interests, applied to all grants, really have much of an effect on science? It would have a dramatic effect. Science is not conducted in a linear fashion, and many findings are serendipitous. My colleagues at Rice stumbled on “buckeyballs” and had little idea what they might be good for. But the carbon structure was interesting, and they pressed forward with it (with some NSF funding). Their work has spawned much of the nanotechnology revolution. That was not to be predicted, and it is also not clear how their earlier work would have fit the narrowing criteria for research.

In a different vein, what place is there for basic research on dark matter, cooperative slime mold, topological structures in pure mathematics, or human social cognition? Narrowing standards, applied for political reasons, would bar much of the basic research carried out by scientists of all stripes.

The second point is why not limit funding for political science so as to avoid conflict with those who control the purse strings? I agree that because political scientists study politics, it will be difficult to avoid studying politicians. But I have two concerns.

First, why stop with limiting one area of funding? Studies of climate change and evolutionary processes offend some legislators. Why not eliminate them as well? Should any form of knowledge be curtailed simply because someone might be offended?

Second, political science is not simply the study of legislators. We study phenomenon ranging from the diffusion of democracy to the impact of human genes on cooperative behavior. Which should be eliminated? Political scientist Robert Putnam has noted that his early work would now be barred from NSF funding – funding that was crucial to him 40 years ago when he started his research (see his editorial in Politico).


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