The NSF cannot be a political tool

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

Prof. Rick Wilson

I am pleased to see that people are taking the time to consider my essay. What worries me is that many view this as an isolated problem. A handful of members of Congress are displeased with political scientists studying Congress and elections. Congress certainly has the right to oversee how public money is spent, and if it chooses to shackle or eliminate federal funding for political science research, then so be it. But I see this as a larger attack on the sciences.

Members of Congress have been threatening to change the criteria used by the National Science Foundation for funding scientific research. Current legislation requires that only the Political Science Program at NSF justify its grants on the basis of “national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Late this spring, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) proposed that similar language be applied to all grants funded across the NSF. With this kind of language, natural scientists and engineers alike are at the same risk as political scientists. Basic research will be dismantled and applied research will be substituted. Fortunately, Rep. Smith has since moderated his views on the matter.

I am sure that the motives of legislators are pure. They are acting in the interests of taxpayers. It certainly makes a great sound bite to advocate that taxpayer money goes toward saving the economy or ensuring national defense. Yet basic scientific research does not work in a fashion that directly serves the needs of business. The next Google will not spring from political directives hatched in Congress. It will come from basic research that provides the theoretical and empirical basis to build it. Important high-quality science is risky. Placing bets on what may be transformative new science is a task for the scientific community.

As Jennifer Victor puts it in her post, it is important to have a system of checks and balances to ensure that taxpayer money for basic research is spent wisely. The peer-reviewed system used by NSF is the gold standard around the globe and is widely emulated. My own point here is that politicizing the National Science Foundation threatens all of the sciences. Chemists and biologists should be just as concerned as political scientists when politics begins to dictate what can be funded.


Share This
  • Chris

    I’m not totally following. It sounds as if Rep. Smith’s backed off his push to extend the “national security or economic interests of the United States” to all NSF funding, so is that one-time push a topic of controversy? Would the “next Google” not see the light of day due to applying that standard to Federal funding of political science only? 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 were to push viewpoint-based funding 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 from those who may be studied funding that study?