Congress’ assault on knowledge

Last month, half of Congress decided that political science isn’t worth NSF funding unless it advances economic development or national security. Imagine, politicians making it more difficult to study politics. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and the 72 other senators who voted for the bill seem to have forgotten that knowledge is the foundation of the economy and the root of our security. But the congressional assault on knowledge does not stop at political science. Science itself is now the target.

Under the guise of impartial austerity, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has drafted a bill—ironically named the “High Quality Research Act” (HQRA)—to replace the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) peer review process with an arbitrary value-latent euphemistic circumlocution of funding criteria. Instead of peer reviewing the broader impacts and intellectual merit of scientific research to decide what projects deserve funding, Smith would rather cut the NSF budget and micromanage.

Jeffrey Mervis of Scientific Insider reports:

(FTA): “Specifically, the HQRA draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) ‘…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) … the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) …not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.’

NSF’s current guidelines ask reviewers to consider the ‘intellectual merit’ of a proposed research project as well as its ‘broader impacts’ on the scientific community and society.”

Regarding HQRA’s first criterion: Is there a nefarious ploy playing out within the scientific community to stagnate national health, prosperity, welfare, or security? Progress in science is a bulwark for national security, so shouldn’t we increase NSF’s budget and make funding more, rather than less, available? Innovation takes freedom. So unless Smith (et al.) can clearly identify other-regarding harm that stems from NSF research, national policymakers should not further limit, i.e. regulate, innovators freedom to innovate. If anything, HQRA would stifle innovative liberty.

To the second criterion: Not all science can or should be “groundbreaking.” Scientific advance is piecemeal. Some research is groundwork for groundbreaking discovery. Think of outwardly banal research like infrastructure: the state must invest in roads before sports cars can cruise. Roads might not be flashy, but they are necessary—and their construction is actually profound when studied in any depth. The seemingly insignificant of today is the foundation for tomorrow’s profundity.

To the third criterion: Duplication is essential to the very nature of science. “Groundbreaking” results should be duplicable. Scientific redundancy hedges against fraud. If results are neither duplicable nor duplicated, how can we tell what research is trustworthy? Precluding scientific duplication de jure strikes me as creating a quack haven. Unless HQRA sponsors intend to protect quackery, stipulating non-duplication is nonsense. More cynically, HQRA’s non-duplication clause would shrink publicly funded competition for “science” advanced by wealthy private political interest groups—re: Oreskes, Conway, & Fox’s concerns about climate change deniers and frackademia.

HQRA smacks of big government—and given its Republican sponsors, libertarian hypocrisy. Congress should not decide what science is worth doing. Natural demand generated within the scientific community should guide research priorities—the invisible hand of the scientific marketplace, in a sense. If Congress shouldn’t “pick winners and losers” in business, why should it in science? Scientists, not Congress, should be the authority on what science is worth doing.

HQRA constitutes an arbitrary imposition of its sponsors’ beliefs pertaining to the value of science—the value of knowledge—in society and policymaking. If HQRA sponsors want to debate the value or proper role of science in society and policymaking, then we should explicitly talk about those values and beliefs. We should discuss the principles underlying the policy. Smith (et al.) should not pretend their motivation is financial. To frame HQRA as a fiscal issue insults public intelligence.

We’re talking about an annual NSF budget of less than 7 billion dollars, people ($6.9B appropriated in FY2013—cut down from the full $7B in FY2012). The US spends $7 billion on defense every three days. Not that defense spending isn’t money well spent, but let’s keep things in perspective when discussing national financial expenditure—and might I reiterate the importance of scientific progress to national defense. NSF’s budget is not the source of US financial woes. In fact, scientific research is among the safest of investments.

Science policy should build roads and get out of the way—unless there are obvious risks of harm related to experimentation, which by rule of the harm principle, can and should be regulated. Scientific innovators do their best work when free to experiment, free to fail without accost, and free to prune the mysteries of the mundane. Of course, freedom means funding. But we, the people, provide that funding via taxes—NSF funded scientists included. We deserve sound public investment with high rates of return. Science satisfies both.

Congress is constitutionally empowered to appropriate the national budget, but to do so on the basis of arbitrary values and beliefs disguised as objective financial necessity is morally questionable at best. Congress is not a group of generous feudal benefactors with absolute prerogative over we peasantry as it seems to have forgotten. Our representatives must be held accountable and to a higher standard of moral sense, which this recent assault on science—on knowledge—offends.

Science is iconic of American idealism: exploration, new frontiers, adventure, accomplishment, mystery, unexpected wealth, innovation, freedom and progress. Unless Congress is in the business of curtailing freedom and progress, the Coburn and Smith policies are a mistake. For all our sakes, Coburn’s anti-political science amendment should be rejected in the House and Smith’s anti-science policy should never see the congressional floor. But only time will tell. Progress in science may be a fact, but progress in ethics is often phantasmal.

jmk

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Science Progress publicizes study of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas

http://scienceprogress.org/2012/12/technology-and-society-fracking-ideology/

As a follow up to the Science Progress article I co-authored with Dr. Adam Briggle earlier this July, we have written another short piece that again explains the subject of our study, Technology and Society: Fracking Ideology, and requests reader participation. You can find the article linked here and above.

Cheers!

JMK

To Frack or Not to Frack

The survey component of To Frack or Not to Frack is now closed–many thanks to all who participated. Results will be publicly available here and through Bard CEP. Stay tuned…

To Frack or Not to Frack

A survey of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas

Dear energy consumers,

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas plays an important role in the debate about our energy future. As an energy consumer, you may have beliefs about, or beliefs that relate to, the use of hydraulic fracturing technology. Given the prominence of natural gas in today’s energy discourse, I am using my Master’s thesis at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy to study the political and ideological dimensions of hydraulic fracturing. My goal is to develop a more thorough understanding of the relationships between socioeconomics, political alignments, philosophical beliefs, and support or lack thereof for the use of hydraulic fracturing technology – but my research depends on your participation. Here and below you will find a link that directs you to a survey with questions related to the current debate about hydraulic fracturing and natural gas:

To Frack or Not to Frack

To help me with my research, I ask that you complete the survey and then share this message and link with your friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and other contacts so that they might do the same. If you have any questions please email them to jmk.frackingideals@gmail.com and I will answer you promptly. Thank you for your participation.

Sincerely,

Jordan M. Kincaid

Geo-ancestral politics

Steve Pinker recently published this NY Times piece on the geo-ancestral cultural roots of contemporary political divisions – my advisor at BCEP was kind enough to bring it to my attention. The underlying point of Pinker’s paper is common sense: understanding our nation’s geo-ancestry can help us understand the political divides of today. We are all vestiges of cultures past. But our cultural heritage stems not just from people, but also from place or topos (hence, “geo”-ancestry). Depending on where your ancestors came from, there’s a certain likelihood that your political allegiances will take one form or another because that place so influenced your ancestral culture and way of life that its remnants have trickled through history all the way to you.

I really recommend reading this piece for yourself because the next few thoughts won’t do his reasoning or research justice (nor will it fully capture all of his ideas), but the upshot is this: Pinker contends that if your colonial ancestors were from England, they were probably farmers, and moved to the Northern/Northeastern US, which translates today into a form of left-wing progressive liberalism. On the other hand, if your ancestors were Scots-Irish, they were probably herders, and moved to the Southern colonies/states, which translates today to right-wing (religious) conservativism.

Of course, many (if not most) Americans hail historically from places other than England, Scotland, or Ireland – this, I presume, is part of why Pinker’s next generalization is useful: forget particular countries; if the place and culture shared by your distant family was herding-based, chances are your ancestors’ relationship with the state partly resembled anarchy. If your family’s heritable culture was farming-based, it’s likely that your ancestors lived somewhere that the government’s role was more prominent. The former (herding and anarchical cultural heritage) corresponds with conservative and libertarian beliefs. The latter tends to correspond to left-wing progressive liberalism. So, the relevant political question then becomes: were your distant relatives herders or farmers?

And then, post-colonialism, Pacific-bound trailblazers were re-exposed to the anarchy of Westward expansion, reinforcing conservative and libertarian views in the mountain and southwest desert states. So this adds yet another dynamic to the system.

At the root of it all, however, Pinker and political philosophers theorize, is a contest between views about human nature – that is, whether you think human nature is fixed, flawed, and must be controlled as if by a strict parent through tried-and-true cultural and religious practices, or if you think human nature is malleable through wisdom and reason, and that public institutions can guide the progress of society like a nurturing care-taker. Pinker refers to these points of view, respectively, as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision of human nature. The Tragic Vision, he suggests, grows out of the anarchical experience, whereas the Utopian Vision stems from living in closer relation to the state. Both of these, again, he says are largely determined by one’s geo-ancestry.

So this line of thought is an interesting one! But how accurate is it? How does it hold up “on the ground?” How about a case study?

In fact, I think I personally make for an odd case for Pinker’s theory — my Scottish ancestors (herders) moved to West Virginia (a northern state) in the early-to-mid 1800s. My relatives moved to Louisiana in the early 20th century, and then my grandfather moved the family to Texas in the 70s (both southern honor culture, with Texas culture being especially anarchical). So how does my geo-ancestry line up with my politics and ideals today?

I think something in between the Utopian Vision of humanity and the Tragic Vision of human nature is probably closest to the truth: human nature is malleable by reason and cultivated skill to an extent, so certain tendencies like violence, while innate and a constant struggle, are largely suppressible or ready to be channeled in constructive ways like martial arts.

I would say children are closer to being Rousseau’s noble savages than Hobbes’ nasty brutes (re: Montessori education). I believe that free markets usually make for freer people than command economies – the state is not omniscient, or really even close enough to make reliable guesses with economic policy. I believe faith has the potential to make individual people nicer and more compassionate, but I certainly don’t think religion has proven to be a work-around for shortcomings like violence and intolerance writ-large. I believe in the purity and sanctity of the body (both human and Earth), and I believe that providing care and avoiding harm are both important.

If you believe the character of the state should be parental (and I’m hesitant to admit that it should), we probably need it to fill both parental roles: one strict, the other nurturing. I think protecting the environment is among the most fundamental, non-arbitrary interests we can fulfill. I believe that a powerful military is necessary and desirable. And I believe that individual freedom in culture and sexuality is paramount for a healthy society.

So, maybe Pinker’s “herder-shepherd : right-left” analogy is more flexible than a strict dipole – beliefs from one set aren’t necessarily inconsistent or incompatible with beliefs from the other. I for one seem to fall on both sides of the distinction in terms of topos and present beliefs. In either case, it’s an interesting topological framework through which to conceptualize today’s politics – here’s to contemplating the politico-ideological impacts of geo-ancestral heritage! What story does your geo-ancestry tell?

Cheers,

JM Kincaid