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Who Decides What Scientific Research to Fund?



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Today is the anniversary of the day in 1945 that Vannevar Bush submitted to President Truman his seminal report Science — The Endless Frontier. That report led to the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the agency that funds much of the country’s basic non-medical scientific research. The anniversary arrives in the midst of a small political controversy about what the agency should fund.

Last week, the editors of Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals, weighed in on the “Flake amendment” — an appropriations amendment proposed by Representative Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) and passed by the House that would stop NSF from funding research in political science. The amendment would redirect the $11 million that NSF now spends on political science — 0.17 percent of the NSF budget — to other projects.

Let’s set aside the question of whether it is an appropriate and wise use of taxpayer dollars to fund political-science research. Instead, let’s examine some of the rhetoric employed against the Flake amendment. It reveals a technocratic view that many scientists hold — a belief that decisions about science funding should be made without input from the democratic political process. The Nature editorial, which exemplifies this technocratic view, begins with this question: “But should public opinion help to decide which areas of science are studied or funded?”

In a democracy, the answer to this is question is obviously yes. (I figured that out without even needing an NSF grant.) It’s actually pretty easy if we just rephrase the question to make it more accurately reflect the facts: “But should public opinion help to decide which areas of science are funded with public money?” The answer to that question should be self-evident, but the implications are worrisome to the Nature editorialists. They believe that “the idea that politicians should decide what is worthy of research is perilous.”#more#

To be sure, many of us might reflexively enjoy the knock at politicians. But this is how representative government works: As long as taxpayer money is being spent on science — and there’s broad public support in the United States for federal science spending — then elected representatives have a responsibility to spend that money in a way that reflects the public interest.

But the Nature editorialists have a different idea of how representative government should work: “The proper function of democracy is to establish impartial bodies of experts and leave it to them.” And presumably the proper function of the taxpayer is to provide these “impartial bodies of experts” with money that they, in their wisdom, can dispense.

Nature’s blatant advocacy of technocracy stands in direct contradiction to the text of and principles embodied by the U.S. Constitution. Maybe we can forgive the Nature editorialists for such an elementary misunderstanding: Nature is a British journal, so maybe they have the British example in mind. But even across the pond, science isn’t simply funded without political input. (There is a widely held belief that U.K. science funding is directed strictly by researchers and not politicians, but this so-called “Haldane Principle” is merely a longstanding myth.)

The Nature editorial ends by really going over the top: It claims that the Flake amendment’s restriction on political-science funding is comparable to abuses of academic freedom elsewhere around the world: “Flake’s amendment is no different in principle to the ideological infringements of academic freedom in Turkey or Iran.”

The comparison is outrageous and offensive. The Turkish government recently jailed political scientist Büşra Ersanlı for “illegally promoting Kurdish rights,” according to a July 3 Nature article. Iran, for its part, has a long listof academic-freedom violations, ranging from firing professorsfor writing critical articles to imprisoningthose who try to provide higher education to oppressed religious minorities like the Bahá’í. The difference between the Flake amendment and these international cases couldn’t be clearer: In the United States, academics have a right not to be imprisoned for speaking their minds, but they do not have a right to receive money from the NSF.

In the Winter 2012 issue of The New Atlantis (where I work),we published a reportby the Witherspoon Council on Ethics and the Integrity of Science on “The Lessons of the Stem Cell Debates.” As it happens, one of the key lessons about science and politics that we can learn from the stem-cell debates is directly related to the question posed by the Nature editorial as to what parts or aspects of science should be subject to the democratic process:

Scientific research should be publicly funded, but only in balance with other goods and never in violation of our fundamental political values. And policy decisions should be informed by science, but only alongside the political, social, and economic concerns that, in our democracy, reflect our efforts to live well and wisely.

Scientists are experts, and deserve respect for their knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that they are entitled to unqualified and unquestioning public financing.

— Brendan Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.



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