Senate Delivers a Devastating Blow to the Integrity of the Scientific Process at the National Science Foundation — WASHINGTON, March 20, 2013




The amendment places unprecedented restriction on the national research agenda by declaring the political science study of democracy and public policy out of bounds. The amendment allows only political science research that promotes “national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

holy shit, that’s disgusting

Practically speaking this will have almost no effect on political science research. The National Science Foundation (the US government agency that manages research funding) is advancing a slippery-slope argument to talk about why their independence has been threatened. But the NSF still ultimately decides where the grants go.

It’s very easy to argue that basically all research of “democracy and public policy” is useful for national security, economic interests, or both. Maybe funding applications will need to include a paragraph explaining why their research is useful for policy applications. But that’s hardly a bad thing, right? Even fundamental-level social science research generally presents a relatively straight line to policy application. And so the NSF can keep on approving whatever ivory-tower projects they like.

So yeah I mean obviously this change is massively suboptimal and deserves to be loudly frowned upon. But in terms of actual research projects losing funding? I’d be surprised if there were any at all.

I think that it’s going to matter how the Senate’s decision is actually implemented. Of course, you’ll see social scientists trying to figure out how their work ‘fits’ the new funding objectives. However, if NSF really gets on board and refuses to fund grants that only have ‘token’ statements for how research meets the new funding objectives then the Senate’s decision could hurt some political scientists.

The decision also establishes a kind of worry amongst some academics that the government could continue to aggressively direct academic study: sure, you can study whatever you want, so long as your work doesn’t depend on federal funds. Some of the Senate’s decision was the result of particular Senators being displeased with the academic work that had been funded; their modification to NSF granting effectively acts as a clear warning to other projects up for NSF funding: if ‘bad’ work that the political paymasters won’t approve of is funded then the paymasters will get very directly involved in matters.

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