Category Archives: High Quality Research Act

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?

The High Quality Research Act: A Steaming Plate of Democracy, or Careful What You Wish For!!

I’d like to build on Hank’s post from yesterday, which looked at Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Smith’s potential legislation, the “High Quality Research Act” (HQRA), which would curtail research spending on certain kinds of research at the National Science Foundation. This article nicely spells out the basic contours of the story. Rep. Smith is particularly interested in cutting funding to research in the social sciences, unless it makes contributions to economic development and national security. What has mostly gone un-mentioned in recent news articles is that most of the cuts will likely effect the NSF’s program in science and technology studies (STS), a field in which I and most other authors of this blog work. Hank did a nice job in his post of connecting this law to two long-standing themes in STS, namely the so-called Science Wars and peer review. I would like to take this issue in a slightly different direction by focusing on STS writing on democracy.

STS writings on democracy go back a long ways, indeed one could easily argue that the place of science in liberal democracies is *the* central theme of the literature. How should science be controlled in a democratic society? Should it fulfill a “social function,” for instance? Or should its objectives be set by scientists? Also, how should the products of scientific discovery play a role in democratic politics?

In the UK in the mid-20th century, J. D. Bernal and Michael Polanyi had it out over this issue, with the Marxist Bernal arguing the science should be for the people and Polanyi insisting that science worked best when it was “autonomous.” In the United States at about the same time, Vannevar Bush was dreaming up the institution that would eventually become the NSF. It’s important to note, however, that Bush originally envisioned an organization for scientists by scientists that would have been fully autonomous from intervention from politicians, including Congress. But this part of Bush’s reverie never came true. The NSF has always had some oversight. 

Of course, one way this issue connects to the history and sociology of science is through the theme of who chooses scientific problems and how they are chosen. This topic goes all the way back to Merton’s Harvard dissertation (1936?) and whiles its way through Kuhn, Forman, Crosbie Smith, Jeremy Blatter, and the whole literature on whether Cold War defense spending “distorted” science.

Most of my progressive friends have been unhappy about this Republican turn against the NSF. They like to point, as Hank did, to the fact that Rep. Smith doesn’t buy into the products of science, including climate science. But we should realize that Smith’s actions are completely understandable when viewed from a slightly different angle, which I usually call the “Whitey’s on the Moon” critique, after Gil Scott-Heron’s great song of the same name.

As Heron asks, why should we be putting white men on the moon when our healthcare system is broken and people are suffering poverty? “Was all that money I made last year for Whitey on the Moon? How come there ain’t no money here? Hmm. Whitey’s on the Moon.” And all of us know about how silly and stupid some research in the social sciences and humanities is. This became especially true in various “studies” programs took off in the 80s, 90s, and 00s. Even lefty scholars, like Terry Eagleton, criticized the silly excesses reached in certain fields: it paints unholy pictures of some grad student in his studio apartment, dressed only in socks and boxers, sitting on his couch with a notebook, watching hours of porn, writing up his doctoral thesis on “The Historical and HermeneuticalTrajectory of the Money Shot” or whatever. 

So, it’s a good thing to ask where our money is going and what it is producing. (Of course, as Scott-Heron points out, the same kinds of questions can and have been asked about the space program and, like, particle accelerators.)

It goes without saying that I part ways with Rep. Laramie when he thinks that the only things of value are economic development and national security. But that last sentence is so glaringly obvious that it really should have gone without saying.

But I think another place this law clearly intersects with STS is around the issue of “democracy.” Some branches of STS have been insisting for years that science and engineering need more democratic input. (Just go to your friendly neighborhood STS journal and pump in the search term “democracy.”) Is this desire for “democracy” in STS a conservative desire? Or a progressive one? Well, that depends, of course. It is remarkable, however, how close certain self-proclaimed progressive strains of post-1960s academic thought come to traditional conservative ideas. It’s no surprise that Habermas called Foucault a “young conservative” given the long Burkean line of seeing people primarily as a product of their society’s past. It’s complicated. Michael Polanyi, who defended the autonomy of science, was also a “conservative nutter” (as one person called him at a conference I attended recently). Our ordinary ways of dividing up politics often falls down when examining these kinds of issues. 

But now perhaps we are seeing how calls for “democracy” are often not as progressive as their chanters believe. Yes, I know that there is a long tension in this country between desires for democracy and fears of the populist mob, of which the Tea Party is one expression. The irony is that STS scholars have always advocated democracy but when the crowds came–Rep. Lamar and his merry band of Tea Partiers–and they entered the NSF, the work of STS scholars was the first thing on the chopping block.  

Here’s another metaphor for you: STS-ers have written a lot on “democracy,” and now Rep. Lamar Smith has served them up a big steaming plate of democracy, upon which he and they can now dine.