Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Distrust of Science

Watching the House Science and Technology Committee engage in the full committee markup of HR 4186 (The FIRST Act) was informative and scary. One thing is clear: the social sciences are neither respected nor valued. While the FIRST Act isn’t about the social sciences, its effect will be dramatic and stifling. Entitled the “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act of 2014” it constitutes the authorization component of the National Science Foundation. Federal agencies such as the NSF have their scope of activities detailed in authorizing legislation. What is unusual about this legislation is that it intervenes at the micro level in NSF by deciding which Directorates are worthy of funding and which are not. The bill also highlights the importance of a limited set of sciences that are thought to be central to industry. Finally the bill details a new set of standards that are required for funding research, including: increasing economic competitiveness; advancing the health and welfare of Americans; developing a STEM workforce; increasing partnerships between the academy and industry; supporting the national defense; and promoting the progress of science. This latter is a nice catchall, but only if what you do is thought to be “real” science.

At present the bill has been marked up and a number of amendments remain on the table pending roll call votes in committee. The roll calls were postponed in part because the majority lacked a majority at the committee markup. Amendment number 28, offered by Rep. Rohrabacher (R-Cal), which cuts the Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. The current authorization has SBE sitting at $256 million. The FIRST Act, as amended by the subcommittee originally cut this to $150 million. A rare bipartisan compromise raised this to $200 million. However, amendment #28, fully supported by Chairman Smith (R-TX), cuts another $50 million, erasing any bipartisan agreement. In discussion over the amendment Rep. Rohrabacher made it clear that Congress must set priorities. In an era of financial stress the sciences that contribute to economic growth should be funded. Frivolous aspects of knowledge do not deserve support by the Federal government – and the claim is that SBE is a third-rate scientific citizen.

No one pulled their punches in the full committee markup. Three points were made clear in the scripted mark-up discussions over amendments. First is the priority of “hard” science, second is the priority given over to industry and third is the distrust of the scientific community to self-regulate and to focus on the “right” science.

The priority of “hard” science is made clear in the FIRST Act. While there is a brief nod to SBE as having legitimacy at NSF, the focus of attention is with mathematics, the physical sciences, computer science and engineering. These are viewed as having a basic science mission. Several members of the committee were dismissive of what SBE might offer for furthering basic knowledge. Much of that knowledge was not seen as addressing national needs with respect to growing the economy. At core here is a lack of understanding of what the social sciences contribute. Elsewhere  I have commented on what we should be doing to make ourselves visible and it seems that now it is more imperative than every before.

It was also clear that the sciences should be the handmaiden of industry. It was intriguing to listen to argument after argument offered that the only sciences worth supporting are those that will lead to new inventions to boost industry. Linking science with industry will ensure American productivity, or so the argument goes. Lamar Smith elaborates this point in an editorial in Forbes. What is difficult to reconcile is why the Federal government should be subsidizing an activity that should be reserved for industry itself. Research and development by industry has collapsed in the past 30 years. Increasingly Universities are being asked to serve as R&D centers for industries – with industry seldom asking for basic research. Applied research that can be patented is all the rage. Equally difficult to reconcile is the antiquated arguments about what sciences “grow” the economy. Much of the language on the committee focused on industries in which the workforce is shrinking and for which there is little demand. I expected Dustin Hoffman to walk into the hearing at any time and be told “plastics.”  Meanwhile, Google, Microsoft and other tech drivers are hiring social scientists by the droves in order to figure out how to handle big data and design research questions.

Finally, the conversation in committee pointed out that scientists cannot be trusted. The claim was that peer review encourages something akin to “group-think” that results in incorrect results being foisted on the American public. What is proposed instead is something akin to cloud sourcing truth. By making all research available the invisible hand of pubic opinion will decide which scientific truths have merit. I agree that science needs to be transparent. But I question the magic of the “cloud” to assess scientific merit. I barely trust advanced graduate students to evaluate scientific claims. I’m less likely to trust an undergraduate. While I have plenty of confidence in American citizens to make judgments about candidates for office, I doubt that most have the time or energy to slog through a scientific paper. It was also clear in discussions that science has been derailed. It no longer looks at questions that are central to the enterprise of growing the economy. Congress is setting the priorities. I wish that they could sit on a panel at NSF and contribute to the conversation about what should be given priority in funding. Scientists spend a good deal of time on panels arguing about scientific merit and trying to place bets on what will be innovative and have a long-term payoff. Perhaps some members of Congress have special insight that the rest of us lack. The National Science Board disagrees.

The bill will be pushed to the floor. Whether it makes it out of calendar depends on the Leadership. If it does it will pass on the House side. The next stop will be the Senate. There the bill is likely to be met with skepticism. However, if the Senate changes hands, next year will most likely see even a greater attack on SBE. As I have asked before, once SBE is ejected from the NSF, what will be next? The Life Sciences are on slippery ground – after all they deal with evolution.