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Senate Hides Behind Secret Votes in Defunding Research

To no small degree, the United States of America rose in prominence because of innovation, and to no small degree that innovation has been funded through research funded directly by the federal government and indirectly through its support of higher education. In economist Edwin Mansfield’s classic study of American industrial innovation, for instance, he finds that industrialists regularly cited academic research as the basis of their technological developments. In the electronics, information processing, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, petroleum, metals and instruments industries, between 89 and 100 percent of the academic research necessary to innovation that was cited by these industries was funded by the federal government. Mansfield identifies the primary source of this government funding — the National Science Foundation:

“The first point to note is that practically all of the cited academic researchers had some government support for their research. In about two-thirds of the cases, it came, at least in part, from the National Science Foundation (NSF).”

You can like it or not, but that’s the way it is.

Non-industrial research strength also plays a role in building American strength. According to social scientists Devesh Kapur and John McHale, the United States holds the largest reservoir of generally highly-educated immigrants from other countries of any nation on the planet. Attracted by accessible, high-quality education and research programs (again, funded generally through the federal and state governments and specifically through research support programs like the National Science Foundation), the world’s best and brightest in all sorts of fields come to America to study and stay to build a life, making the U.S. a better place to live.

The Senate just voted to shoot this process in the foot, cutting the research budget of the National Science Foundation in this amendment.

In case you’re wondering, you can’t look up who voted which way, either. The Senate made its decision using a voice vote so that the American public couldn’t track politicians’ behavior and hold them accountable.

11 comments to Senate Hides Behind Secret Votes in Defunding Research

  • Bill

    What you’re referring to is the Coburn amendment to the continuing resolution, which proposes to bar NSF from funding “…the political science study of democracy and public policy….The amendment allows only political science research that promotes “national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

    It’s always a dangerous thing, allowing iggerant pols to ban funding for specific lines of research they dislike, and on that grounds alone this must be opposed. That said, however, as a scientist myself I would note that ‘political science’ is to science as ‘military intelligence’ is to intelligence. Personally, I’d be OK with it if the NSF didn’t fund any political science, just because it ain’t science. Let the NRSF (the National Random Speculation Foundation) fund that nonsense.

    • Bill, your intolerance for the study of anything non-scientific is astounding. If you were a mathematician, would you also argue that all non-mathematical research should be ended?

      I agree that political science is not science. Much of social research does itself a disservice by claiming to be science, as most of it is not truly scientific. However, to refer to non-scientific research as “random speculation” is not accurate, and it shows a smallness of mind on your part.

      • Bill

        Oh, OK. “Systematic speculation” then.

        I have no objection whatsoever to people studying ‘non-scientific’ subjects, J. In fact I’m rather glad we have artists, and philosophers, and tradesmen, and economists, and jurists, and architects, etc., and I’m happy to see them and others study and advance their disciplines. I’m even happy to see those who are interested in politics attempt to study it with some quantitative and logical rigor. What concerns me is merely when the majority of a non-scientific discipline’s practitioners insist against all logic that their discipline is a science and they are scientists, when it just ain’t so. And political scientists are, in my experience, the very worst offenders in that regard.

    • Hi, Bill.

      What is your criterion for deciding that there isn’t any science in political science?

      Jim

      • Bill

        As usual, Jim, you have cut to the heart of the matter, and as usual you have caught me with my metaphorical pants down. The older I get and the more I try to define ‘science’, the less confidence I can muster. All the usual philosophers of science are no help to me here…most every practicing scientist I know would agree that Karl Popper’s lofty idealization of ‘science’ bears only the slimmest relationship to what they actually do.

        Science is, of course, (1) quantitative, (2) testable, and (3) predictive, but then so are many other things we can probably all agree aren’t science, from market research to card-counting in blackjack. I think what distinguishes science from these other things is that science rests on and is wholly dependent upon physical laws…it is predictive and testable because physical laws (the laws of chemistry and physics, or the laws of physics, for short) admit of certain outcomes and forbid others. Now, the behavior of people is, of course, ultimately grounded in the laws of physics, because people are physical systems, but human behavior is so many levels of abstraction removed from physics as to make the connection impossible to trace in practice, just as the behavior of Newtonian physics is, at its root, necessarily grounded in quantum physics, but so many levels removed from it as to be, for all practical purposes, seemingly unrelated (in that Newtonian physics can make no useful predictions regarding quantum mechanical systems, and vice versa). The study of human behavior is also greatly complicated by the pesky phenomenon of ‘free will,’ which neither science nor philosophy have really gotten their arms around. A human can choose to do (or not do) something because he damn well feels like it, whereas an asteroid or a virus cannot. I’m unaware of any physical laws that incorporate this most powerful and puzzling force of (human) nature, and until they do the quest to turn the study of human behavior into a ‘science’ is, I think, doomed to fail.

        Note to my mathematician friends: I freely admit here that mathematics is not grounded in the laws of physics (in fact, it is the other way around). I acknowledge mathematics as the mother and the root of all science, and as such subject only to its own internal laws.

        • Bill,

          Thanks for writing back. I’d like to note that by one of your definitions, that “science rests on and is wholly dependent upon physical laws,” there is no way, ever, that social sciences, or biology for that matter, can ever fit under your consideration of the “sciences.” But that’s trivially true, because such a definition wholly excludes anything that doesn’t involve “physical laws” (and we could go on for a whole day talking about what those are and where they come from).

          By your other definition — “Science is, of course, (1) quantitative, (2) testable, and (3) predictive” — political science in particular and social science more generally most certainly can be scientific. The National Science Foundation funds research that is largely quantitative, testable and predictive.

        • Bill

          I certainly agree with you, Jim, that political science can be scientific…my argument would be that the vast majority of political science simply isn’t in practice. I’m reminded of that guy back during the Americans Elect saga…what was his name, Bill Kellerman?…a retired political scientist who kept insisting that his take on AE was correct because he’s a scientist.

          P.S.: on the question of whether biology is or can be a science according to my definition of the term, I (as a biologist) would disagree completely with you there. Biology is very firmly and completely based on chemistry and physics in a direct line that is both easy and necessary to trace. And not just the biomedical sciences…the somewhat ‘softer’ biological disciplines such as evolutionary biology, ecology, even psychobiology are today quite rigorously chemical and physical in nature. That argument about biology was pretty decisively settled back in the day of Hans Driesch, a noted German embryologist, who whacked-out at the dawn of the last century and started insisting that the behavior of biological systems could not be explained by reference only to the laws of chemistry and physics and posited, instead, some pseudo-Aristotelean mumbo-jumbo ‘entelechy’ or super-physical life-force. He later became a darling of the parapsychology crowd while all the rest of us in biology went on to describe (and predict) life perfectly well with reference only to the laws of physics and chemistry. A typical young biologist today probably has more formal training in physics and chemistry than she does in biology per se, because without that she has nothing useful to contribute to the discipline.

          • Evolutionary biology can contain some of the least empirical thinking out there, offering hypothetical Just So Stories in which, if a trait exists, it must be adaptive, and therefore it is the job of the evolutionary biologist to come up with a plausible (but not verified) account of the trait’s adaptability. And if ecology is “rigorously physical” in nature, than so are the social sciences, which offer a number of quantitative models describing the relationship between various measures of the structure of the physical environment and the diffusion of behavior.

            I notice you’ve quoted one end of the spectrum for political science — see http://www.linkedin.com/pub/william-j-kelleher-ph-d/9/466/687 for William J. Kelleher, the Americans Elect fanatic you’re thinking of, who got a PhD in Political Science 30 years ago but couldn’t find a job above the adjunct level at a community college…

            … while you’re quoting the most seminal biologists in their field.

            You could have flipped this and compared the really poor “Steven Rowitt, PhD” (degree in Health Science from the diploma mill Touro University International) — http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=63088375&authType=NAME_SEARCH&authToken=QCWo — who fronts for the “Creation Studies Institute — http://www.creationstudies.org/Education/richard-dawkins-abortion-tweet-.html — to a seminal political scientist who has engaged in high-quality quantitative, testable, predictive work like James Fowler — http://medgenetics.ucsd.edu/faculty/Pages/james-fowler.aspx — and concluded that biology is crap science while political science is the place to go for really good quality work.

            Which sort do you think gets NSF funding in biology? Which sort do you think gets got NSF funding in political science?

        • Bill

          I should also add that the herald of the birth of modern biology was, many of us think, the publication of a slim but delightful little book titled “What Is Life?” by the hard-core physicist, Irwin Schrodinger, who basically argued that biology is nothing more than physics in a wet bag. Many of the early titans of modern biology cite reading that book as the turning point in their intellectual lives.

          • Horatio

            Arguing that everything other than physics is basically nothing more than physics is one of the most idiotic things that physicists do, and one of the reasons they have trouble dating.

  • Dave

    The American Political Science Association website is abuzz with news of Coburn’s amendment. Not surprising when, in their own words, they are “repre$enting the profe$$ional intere$t$ of political $cienti$t$.” (Their words, my spelling:) More seriously, though, I have often suspected that observation in certain sciences takes on the colour of the lenses through which we are looking. The syllabi of APSA recommended courses have a distinct left-activist bent which makes it something of a puzzle why the majority Democrat Senate passed this amendment.

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