The scientific community is, by and large, angered by proposed reorganizations of funding agencies in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015. Not sharing my community’s knee-jerk hostility toward Republican initiatives, my opinions of Representative Smith’s changes are mixed. Some of the proposals are truly unfortunate. Forbidding the government from using its own research findings is bizarre. I have no strong opinion on the push to reduce applied research funding and the claim that this is something the private sector can do well enough. Only one of the changes has clear culture war resonance–restrictions on NSF’s ability to fund social sciences and geosciences. That’s what I want to talk about. Cutting off the social sciences would be such a boon for funding and public relations–not to mention the integrity of science as a whole–that I’m stunned the natural scientists are so against it.
Natural sciences and social sciences are both called “science”, but they’re two totally different things. It is administratively correct to group the natural sciences–physics, chemistry, and biology. For one thing, there’s no clear line between atomic physics and physical chemistry or between organic chemistry and molecular biology. Grouping the social sciences–psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics–also makes sense to me. Funding both through a single agency means pairing them together as two instances of a single kind of thing, namely “science”. It may be impolite to point this out, but its pretty clear that one partner gains a lot more from this pairing than the other. Science has a tremendously high prestige and reservoir of bipartisan good will among the American public–it’s the closest thing we have to “motherhood and apple pie” now that gender roles and a common culture have been deemed oppressive–and the public’s support for science is not because they think so highly of the work of feminist sociology professors. In fact, the shenanigans of social scientists are surely a net drain on the overall credibility of science. They’re trading on the credibility earned by the natural sciences to give their fields a status they would never have on their own merits. As we’re seeing in Congress, the public doesn’t have nearly the same respect for nor willingness to fund the social sciences. Nor should it.
Of course, some of the social sciences have genuine value. However, they don’t have the same level of rigour and definitiveness as the natural sciences. It makes much more sense to take a chemist’s word on the properties of methane than it does to take a social scientist’s word on the properties of rural Americans. It’s also legitimate for the public to deny funding to fields that have become so heavily ideological. At worst, many Americans are being asked to fund activism and hostile propaganda against themselves. Even in the very best case where studies are being done dispassionately and conscientiously, it’s still asking them to pay for the theology of a religion they don’t believe.
Natural scientists, being good liberals, tend to be happy to lend their credibility to social scientists, and play along when attacks on the latter are called attacks on “science”. I wonder if they’ve really considered the price of letting science become a co-belligerent in liberalism’s ideological battles. Perhaps they’re counting on liberalism to carry all before it, and that there is only gain to be on the side of a winner. If they’re wrong–if conservatives gain cultural power or even achieve a stalemate–the consequences for science are quite bad. Tens of millions of citizens will be unnecessarily alienated from something they would be otherwise inclined to support. If liberalism continues to advance, the alienation will be just as bad. Progressivism always progresses, and no sooner has it slain one enemy than it finds another to attack. Despite liberalism’s great advances–far beyond anything the Jacobins even dreamed–it still finds itself demonizing a large minority of the population, and its tendency to always find new things to attack means this may never change. In twenty years, it may have moved on to collective childrearing, and those nice same-sex parenting couples they’re now championing will have become another sinister reactionary force to be destroyed. The point is, no matter how fast liberalism conquers, being openly on their side means having lots of people angry at you.
Plus there’s the issue of intellectual honesty. There really is no connection between, say, special relativity and socialism. But we’re talking about money and popularity in this post.
If I were a Republican Congressman (heaven forbid!), I wouldn’t go about this so directly. Firstly, there’s absolutely no justification for restricting funding to the geosciences–that’s a branch of physics and deserves to be treated like it. Second, it’s not necessary to talk about cutting, just splitting. NSF should be funding natural science, but all the money they’re now giving to social science should be transferred to a new funding agency, the National Scholastic Theology of Liberalism Foundation (NSTLF), which henceforth shall have exclusive responsibility for research grants in the social sciences. No change of funding levels right now, just reorganization. In future years, congressmen can adjust the funding levels of NSF and NSTLF according to the value they are found to have for their constituencies.
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