Friday, May 19, 2006

Republicans Question Need for Publically Funded Social Science

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison questioned the importance of social science research, suggesting that the social and political sciences be barred from receiving funds from Bush's proposed boost in scientific research funding, and even suggested that the NSF get out of funding social science altogether, according to this article in Science.

Hutchison’s attack on the social science fits the general pattern of what Chris Mooney has called “the Republican war on science.”Republicans have always hated science, because it tells them truths they don’t want to hear. When the Office of Technology Assessment reported that Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative wouldn’t work, the Gingrich congress responded by eliminating the Office of Technology Assessment. Of course, our current Dear Leader is well known for his ability to ignore expert advice: intelligence reports that say Saddam has no weapons of mass destruction, EPA reports on global warming, descriptions of levees breaking, memos titled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the US.”, etc.

Hutchison’s move fits perfectly with the rest of the Republican war on science. Her rhetoric matches exactly tactics used in previous attacks on research in human sexuality. The strategy is simple: create a list of grantees whose research sounds arcane or unusual, and ask "Why are taxpayers funding this?" Here is Hutchison's list for the social sciences
Why is the National Science Foundation (NSF) funding a study of a women's cooperative in Bangladesh? Why are U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for efforts to understand Hungary's emerging democracy? And why are social scientists even bothering to compile an archive of state legislatures in a long-gone era when those legislators chose U.S. senators?
Since most science is about technical issues, it is easy to discredit any research program with such questions. Admittedly, these questions don’t have quite the same bite when applied to research into the functioning of democracy as they did in sex research. When Republicans were attacking research into human sexuality, they could ask “Why are taxpayers funding research into truck stop prostitutes?” with the implication that anyone who was interested in such topics must be some kind of pervert. Nevertheless, Hutchison seems to have enough faith in her ability to discredit social science that she thinks she can totally cut off its current funding base. Hutchison is right to think her rhetoric is powerful. It is essentially the same technique that the Republicans used to eviscerate the National Endowment for the Arts. To discredit the NEA, Republicans would describe unusual works of art, often sexual in nature, without any context, and then ask, “Why is the American taxpayer funding this.” In fact, when the Traditional Values Coalition first launched their campaign against sex research, chief Andrea Lafferty called the NIH "the National Endowment for the Arts with a chemistry set."

Hutchison may defend herself by saying that she did not propose to eliminate all federal funding for the social sciences. She merely proposed eliminating NSF funding for it. She told Science "I'm trying to decide whether it would be better to put political science and some other fields into another [government] department." But the NSF funds 52% of all social science research in the US and 90% of the work in political science. (These numbers are again from Science.) Since Hutchison has not proposed where else this money might come from, and since she is trying to separate the social sciences from the NSF at a time when the NSF is getting a big boost in funding, this can only be interpreted as an attack on the social sciences.

People with authoritarian mindsets have real trouble with science. The tyrants love the toys science can produce, but the whole idea of free inquiry is anathema to them. A while back The Old Gray Lady had an article about China's efforts to build world class universities. (For some reason this isn’t behind the pay wall yet.) They are doing an excellent job, apparently, of wooing top people in science and technology, mostly ethnic Chinese, to set up labs at Chinese Universities. The rapid expansion makes the explosive growth of American universities in the 50s and 60s--the growth driven by the GI bill and the reaction to Sputnik--sound like a firecracker. In thirty years, they have gone from giving college educations to 1.4 percent of the population to providing that education to 20 percent of the people. But the Chinese are also trying to do this without allowing academic freedom. They are also ignoring the humanities, since after all the humanities demand freedom to talk about annoying issues and don't give you any toys in return.

There are a lot of people in America who would share this vision of what a university should be. Bobby Lauder, the monarch of the board of trustees at my previous institution, Auburn University, certainly wants the university to follow that model, except that his ideal also involves a football team. Actually, Lauder saw himself as owning a football team with some kind of school attached to it for reasons he didn’t fully understand. Since he reluctantly had to run a school, he did the only thing he could think to do: attack the humanities and pure sciences, and boost engineering and agricultural research.

It’s a shame when the tyrants start dictating science policy. We need to fight them at every turn.

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