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The War on Social Science and its Consequences

- July 11, 2013

Unlike other agencies in the federal government with a research charge, the NSF has no laboratories, and it does not carry out its own research. Instead, its mandate is to identify and fund the very best basic science. Indeed, the NSF is regarded as the gold standard for funding basic research. It is envied and emulated across the world. Three features are responsible for this reputation: a culture of scientific independence, an extraordinary system of peer review, and the long tradition of political independence.

…. This mandate notwithstanding, Congress has often attacked individual projects at the NSF. The “Golden Fleece” awards handed out by the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) poked fun at grants that seemed silly on their face. But he selected these individual grants for shock appeal, and neither he nor his budget-minded successors ever went after an entire discipline. These days, however, Congress is wielding a far bigger anti-science axe. Lawmakers are now going after entire programs at the NSF, with political science on the chopping block.

This from Rice University political scientist Rick Wilson writing in the new online Symposium Magazine. He goes on to warn:

Some scientists may view these attacks as minor matters. After all, the focus has been with a small program at NSF, and many in the natural sciences may believe that the study of politics cannot be scientific. But the larger scientific community should not ignore the shackling of one program at the NSF. If politics dictates what is worth studying, all disciplines are at risk. If politicians decide that they can judge the merit of cutting-edge research, then the peer review system is at risk. Why stop at political science, when the entire NSF Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences could be eliminated? Why stop there if biology continues to insist on using evolutionary models? The challenge to science is clear. If politics inserts itself into science, we must ask ourselves whether any of our fields survive — and who will be the next target.

The full article is worth a read and is available here.