The High Quality Research Act: Searching for Ways Beyond "Politicization"

This post is a continuation of our on-going discussion here at American Science of Rep. Lamar Smith's High Quality Research Act (HQRA), which would cut the National Science Foundation's funding to certain kinds of research, especially in the social sciences.

It was only a matter of time before someone dropped the p-word, "politicization," in discussions of the HQRA. It's a word that haunts these kinds of topics. The first appearance of the word in this context that I noticed was in this post by Michael McAuliff and Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post.

I want to question and probe their discussion.

McAuliff and Grim use the p-word in their first paragraph when they write that the HQRA "would in effect politicize decisions made by the National Science Foundation." They never define the term. They then go on to quote approvingly from a letter that Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) wrote to Lamar Smith: "This [the HQRA] is the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely regarded as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world." They summarize Johnson's letter as claiming that the HQRA was a "dangerous politicization of one of the most successful scientific research promoters in history." Politicization isn't Johnson's word; it's theirs, though Johnson does use close approximates like "political intrusion" and "political pressure."

Johnson also lays out this beaut of an argument, which I pull from his letter: The "NSF's peer review process" has been "the gold standard for how scientific proposals should be judged and funded." And "in this context, the term 'peer' is not simply a fellow citizen as we encounter on a courtroom jury. It means very specifically another scientist with expertise in at least some aspect of the science being proposed." Therefore: "Politicians, even a distinguished Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, cannot be 'peers' in any meaningful sense."

Democracy Be Damned!!!!

What is going on here?

As many in science and technology studies have argued, the rhetoric of politicization assumes that science is somehow non- or a-political. It is a favored rhetorical strategy of many popular science writers, especially progressives criticizing the right, including academics, like Naomi Oreskes, and science journalists, like Chris Mooney. There are lots of things wrong with politicization as an argumentative ploy. First off, it's too simple. It's not an accurate picture of reality. Also, it typically leads to a too easy polarization of politics: there are good guys, and there are bad guys, and we know who they are. And frequently it ends up with choir-preaching. It's no surprise that Mooney went from talking about the right-wing politicization of science in his first book to arguing that Republicans have bad brains in his most recent one. Forget the Socratic injunction that the wise person knows that she doesn't know. It's the other guys who are fools. The most vocal critic of this kind of thinking in science and technology studies has been Sheila Jasanoff. She doesn't think politicization, especially with its frequently built-in demonization, is any place to begin conversation. And she's right.

Politics, politics, politics. So many different kinds of politics. So many different kinds of politics that the word itself begins to melt. A basic tenant—perhaps even a dogma—of science and technology studies is that science is always political, but what does it mean to say this? Well, in their 1985 book, Leviathan and the Air Pump, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer described how the earliest debates about experimental science—in their story, the debates between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes—were about the nature of polities and politics, with Boyle arguing for a quasi-democratic (though always selective) community of peers and Hobbes holding out for monarchy. In other words, the founding of science was itself political. Others have shown how the Cold War shaped science; how academic fads, such as the current craze for the three O's (nano-info-bio), influence project funding; how scientists strive to gain legitimacy and credibility and then use their authority for political ends; and how peer review is much less ideal and much more political and fraught than defenders make it out to be, just to name a few such arguments. The consensus was established a long time ago: there's no use in trying to separate science from politics, even rhetorically, and, moreover, attempts to make that separation are themselves political. Science, like everything else, is human and screwed up.

Also, we shouldn't forget in all of this that "politics" has long been a dirty word in the United States, extending back from recent rampant discourse about "partisanship" through pop works, like E. J. Dionne's 1991 book, Why American's Hate Politics, all the way to the founding of the nation, with the Federalists fretting endlessly over factions, parties, and their ill consequences. (I'll just mention without going into it that some thinkers, like him and her, have argued for years that this attempt to suppress politics is exactly the wrong tack; that, instead, we should admit that politics are omnipresent and learn to deal with them fruitfully and productively.)

This leads to a further question. Given that science is always political, what kind of politics do we want to use to guide it? Here, as I argued in my last post, I think science and technology studies have largely fallen down. One response from many corners would likely be that we can't give a general answer to this question. The appropriate form of politics will have to fit the context and the situation. But I would like to hear something more concrete than all that. Smith, as an elected official, is putting forward one version of a democratic politics: the NSF, a federal agency, should be accountable to Congress, the federal body of democratically-elected representatives. It's easy, however, to argue, with some force, that our electoral system is so broken that it is no longer democratic. Scott, who commented on my last post and who I hope will say more, criticized Smith as anti-democratic but drew on the trusty table metaphor to argue, "I would love to include him and all others at a table for fair, open, honest discussion and consensus building." This would be another model, having open, public discussions about how to set research priorities. Yet, can we imagine the NSF as a site of direct democracy? The science funding table? I can't; nor do I want to imagine such a thing, I think (though I could be convinced otherwise). So, what then? Rep. Smith has given people an excellent opportunity to put forward alternative frameworks for science governance.

I think the final question is this: what can people working in science and technology studies do to get their arguments "out there"? If we artificially date the idea that science is always political to the 1985 publication of Shapin and Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air Pump, then the argument has been around for nearly thirty years to little avail (outside academic discussions). Pop writers, such as McAuliff and Grim, Oreskes, and Mooney are still falling back on the too easy, too simple trope of politicization. What is to be done?


It sounds to me as though this post was written by people who have never struggled with an experiment or chosen between grant applications from those who do.

It is,ever so subtley, verging on being a justification for the GOP's war on science.

Hi, David. Thanks for your comment. I certainly don't have much in common with Rep. Smith. For example, I think that anthropogenic climate change is real and that it is a great threat to global civilization, especially to many impoverished, non-Western nations who will feel the consequences of life in Western rich ones. And I don't share Smith's reasons for calling science into question. As I pointed out in my last post, however, it is not only conservatives who believe that sometimes scientists don't have the right priorities and that their work, especially government funding, should be open to democratic processes. I pointed to the poet and songwriter Gil Scott-Heron and his song "Whitey on the Moon" as an example of someone on the left who made a similar argument: I think Rep. Smith has about as much in common with Gil Scott-Heron as John Boehner has with Abbie Hoffman. The real question is whether insulating scientists from (some sort of democratic) oversight is the best way to produce the highest quality and most socially beneficial scientific knowledge. I take it you think so?

Yes, I do think so, History has shown that most really important discoveries have arisen from unpredicted sources. Scientists themselves can't predict what will turn out to be very important, so politicians most certainly can't. But scientists have a chance of telling what sort of work is feasible. That matters, because, left to themselves, politicians choose things that are important, but which aren't at the moment, feasible. Nixon's War on Cancer didn't cure cancer. and Bush's Decade of the Brain didn't solve memory, simply because the tools for solving the problems didn't exist (and, by and large, still don't).

It is very hard for politicians to accept that, in order to get innovation, you need to hire the best people you can, let them get on, and accept that most of it will fail. But that's how it works. The justification has to be historical.

Thanks, David. I appreciate your perspective on this, and your point about uncertainty is well taken. National funding of basic science is often based on a market failure argument, in which, although corporations will attend to "applied science" and any breakthroughs within near reach, they won't spend much on really hard, far off problems. There are then at least two uncertainties around basic science: 1) what science will produce and 2) what our future needs will be, that is, what we will find useful down the road. Short-term and short-sighted science policy often loses perspective especially on this second kind of uncertainty. On all that, I'm right with you.

I wonder if some of our disagreement about priority-setting has to do with the level of decision-making under discussion.

I can understand that within a given band (maybe narrow, maybe wide) only technical experts will be able to determine what is feasible and even what is attractive in research. You can throw all the money you want at the cure for cancer or solving the issues of the brain, but if the tools aren't there, they aren't there. Fine and good.

I don't think that the criticisms that Gil Scott-Heron or Lamar Smith are making work on this level, however. Scott-Heron was questioning why the USA was putting people on the moon when poverty and a broken healthcare system were troubling realities on the ground. Smith is asserting that social science research is not valuable unless it is making real contributions to economic development or national security. (I would point out that Smith is not alone in this kind of critique; lot's of US universities are cutting back on social science and humanities programs.) Now, I am a social scientist (a historian), and I couldn't disagree more with Smith about the value of social science. But that doesn't mean I think the solution to these kinds of questions is just to leave it up to the experts. To claim that scientists are the best people to make decisions on these kinds of priorities (manned space flight vs. healthcare; social science focus on economic development vs. say, social science focused on indigenous cultures) is to argue that scientists have a kind of wisdom that goes well beyond the issue of feasibility you are discussing (I think).

As a historian, I'm also skeptical about the justification for these kinds of decisions being historical. I think we can point to just as many cases where scientists left to their own devices got up to no good. But I'll leave that discussion to the side.

My response to this post began as a comment, so I thought I would insert here a link to my response:

I don't have much else to add to the previous four comments, except the following:

1. I think this is an interesting discussion.

2. Although I don't have the expertise to comment on the rest of David Colquhoun's second comment, I do think that there is something fishy about this turn of phrase: "It is very hard for politicians to accept that X"

Is I read it, this phrase means "Politicians have a vested interest in accepting that X, and as a result they have trouble accepting X even when history and common-sense demands that they accept X."

I take issue with this phrase, but not because I consider it false (it is quite plausible that politicians have a vested interest in insisting on the need for democratic oversight of science, and at any rate I am unable to demonstrate the contrary).

Instead I take issue with the phrase because it is one-sided: one could say with equal plausibility that scientists have a vested interest in insisting on the futility of democratic oversight, and that as a result they have trouble accepting the need for democratic oversight even when history and commonsense demands it.

I say this not to trigger a debate about whether or not scientists (or politicians) have the said vested interests, but to discourage phrases that imply that scientists (or politicians) do have those vested interests. Both sides have vested interests; and even if one side had more vested interests than the other this would be irrelevant to the question of what sort of democratic oversight is best.

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