Category Archives: Chris Mooney

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?