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Remarks on Science Funding by John Holdren

- May 3, 2013

John Holdren, the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, spoke today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  His full comments are here, via Rick Wilson.  (I cannot find a link to these comments yet.)  An encouraging excerpt:

I want to make a further point about the kinds of research that the Federal government is and should be funding.  Members of Congress have recently suggested, variously, either that the social sciences are not really science and should not be supported by the tax-payers at all;  or that research in political science, at least, should only be supported if the NSF will certify to Congress, for each grant, that the research will advance either the economy or national security (a provision now actually embodied in law in the most recent Continuing Resolution governing spending for the remainder of FY13); or that all taxpayer-funded research should have to pass the test of offering a predictable benefit for some national interest.

Let me therefore be clear about the position of this Administration, as President Obama was in his remarks on Monday at the 150th anniversary meeting of the National Academy of Science.

First, the social and behavioral sciences—which of course include economics, sociology, psychology, and anthropology, as well as political science—are sciences. Researchers in these fields develop and test hypotheses; they publish results in peer-reviewed journals; and they archive data for so that others can replicate their results.

Second, while much of the work in these sciences meets the definition of basic research – expanding our understanding of ourselves and our surroundings – much work in the social and behavioral sciences is aimed at having (or ends up having without being aimed that way) practical application to society’s direct benefit.

Political science research helps us understand the motives and actions of nations and peoples around the world, strengthening our foreign policy, and it helps understand our own democracy and how to make it stronger. Economics research has clarified not only the economic importance of innovation but also its determinants, which in turn have helped us craft policies that effectively promote innovation and thus economic growth.

Social and behavioral research has helped us make hurricane warnings more effective, improve methods of instruction and training in school and in the workplace, and manage commons resources efficiently without centralized regulation.  And it has taught us that social-distancing strategies, like staying home from work or school, can be a crucial complement to vaccination strategies when it comes to breaking the transmission of influenza from person to person.

Third, whether we are talking about research in the social and behavioral sciences, or in the natural sciences, it makes no sense at all to confine taxpayer support to those projects for which a likely direct contribution to the national interest can be identified in advance.  (Unless, of course, the national interest is defined to include expanding the boundaries of knowledge, which would be fine with me but is not, I think, what members of Congress proposing the criterion have in mind.)

Imposing such a national-interest criterion in the form its sponsors seem to have in mind would throw out the basic-research baby with the bathwater, inasmuch as basic research constitutes precisely that subset of research activity that is aimed at expanding knowledge without reference to possible applications.