27 May 2011

Dan Sarewitz on Senator Coburn's New Report

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a guest post by Dan Sarewitz, professor at ASU and co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (and pictured below). To his surprise, Dan found his work cited approvingly in a new report on the National Science Foundation just released by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). This post has Dan's reaction.  David Bruggeman has more here.]

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who has a reputation as a straight-shooting, no-nonsense conservative, is also, it appears a supporter of national industrial policy, something that conservatives typically hate. He has just issued a report that alleges to be a hard-hitting critique of the National Science Foundation, but it’s mostly just an attack on government funding of social science research, thus continuing a conservative tradition that dates back to the debates over the initial creation of NSF in the late 1940s.

I’ll get to the social science stuff in a minute, but for now let’s focus on the fact that Senator Coburn prominently—and apparently approvingly—quotes, um, ME! (Please see page 12 of his report.) In a recent Nature column (among lots of other places) I argue that US civilian R&D agencies are not appropriately structured to catalyze technological innovation or progress rapidly toward desired societal outcomes, and that this institutional weakness remains significantly camouflaged by the legacy of DOD and the military-industrial-university complex,which powered technological innovation and economic growth in the decades following World War II.

I’m pleased that Senator Coburn finds this critique to be compelling, and can only infer, then, than he would agree that what’s needed is a much more coherent and strategic approach for linking knowledge creation to knowledge use and problem solving—a strategy that, in the olden days might have been called “industrial policy” and now we might term “innovation system policy.” It’s only slightly ironic, I guess, that the (still admittedly limited) understanding we have of how innovation systems work—the basis of my critique that he so flatteringly cites—is, well, rooted in the social sciences that he wants to de-fund.

(On this latter point, in part the Senator’s report is just another example of Republicans using the banner of fiscal responsibility to attack programs that they happen not to like but whose elimination can have no conceivable impact on fiscal responsibility. The entire social and behavior science budget at NSF ($252 million) amounts to all of 3.6% of the total NSF budget, 0.3% of the civilian R&D budget, and 0.006% of the federal budget. Attacking social science is good conservative politics, but it has nothing to do with serious budget policy.)

Moreover, much of Senator Coburn’s report details the sorts of random, petty abuses that are simply unavoidable in any complex bureaucracy like NSF (my goodness, an NSF employee was caught watching lots of porn! And another one scheduled a work trip so he could visit his girlfriend!). Yet the report does touch on a problematic aspect of civilian science policy that has managed to escape serious political scrutiny for 60 years, even though it is fundamentally incoherent. In specific, Senator Coburn is concerned that NSF’s research is insufficiently “transformative.” He cites survey work (more social science!!) showing that most NSF peer reviewers believe that only a small percentage of the proposals they review are “transformative.” He then goes on to list fifty or so examples of funded projects (“Are people more or less racially-focused when seeking love on-line in the Obama era?”) whose potential “transformativeness” he questions. This approach follows the tradition of Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards of the 1970s and 1980s, and it was probably fun to do. But could it be a coincidence that all of the projects he singles out have titles that a lay person can understand, and that many of them are social science projects? Or have Senator Coburn and his staff determined that all of the work that NSF funds in subatomic particle physics, deep mantle geochemistry, and molecular genetics is genuinely “transformative”?

The political rhetoric of basic academic science for the past 50 years has been basically this: leave us alone to follow our curiosity wherever it may lead, and the payback to society will be enormous—we’ll cure cancer, create the next industrial revolutions, clean up the environment, and everyone will get wealthier in the process. And if you try to tell us what to do you’ll only screw things up.

But as budgets have increased over the decades, as science and politics have increasingly come into conflict, and as the promised benefits of science have often proven elusive indeed, the question of how this path from knowledge to benefit really works becomes hard to avoid. Science advocates up the ante by promising more “transformative” research, but of course science is only one element of a complex set of factors that lead to progress on difficult social problems. When frustration sets in, what’s a politician to do?

I’m a big fan of (and have been generously supported by) NSF (including support for work that has informed my own critiques of the policy model that sustains NSF), but have long feared that the simpleminded elegance of the political rhetoric of academic basic research will someday turn out to be a source of serious political vulnerability for publicly supported science. Is Senator Coburn just being a heel, or has he discovered American science’s Achilles’ Heel?