Last month, I blogged about Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) passing an amendment blocking the National Science Foundation from funding most political science research. I wrote:
This sort of political interference with the peer-review process, of course, sets a chilling precedent for all academic research, regardless of discipline. (What’s next, an amendment banning computer science research, unless it has applications to scheduling baseball games or slicing apple pies?)
In the comments section of that post, I was pilloried by critics, who ridiculed my delusional fears about an anti-science witch hunt. Obviously, they said, Congressional Republicans only wanted to slash dubious social science research: not computer science or the other hard sciences that people reading this blog really care about, and that everyone agrees are worthy. Well, today I write to inform you that I was right, and my critics were wrong. For the benefit of readers who might have missed it the first time, let me repeat that:
I was right, and my critics were wrong.
In this case, like in countless others, my “paranoid fears” about what could happen turned out to be preternaturally well-attuned to what would happen.
According to an article in Science, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the new chair of the ironically-named House Science Committee, held two hearings in which he “floated the idea of having every NSF grant application [in every field] include a statement of how the research, if funded, ‘would directly benefit the American people.’ ” Connoisseurs of NSF proposals will know that every proposal already includes a “Broader Impacts” section, and that that section often borders on comic farce. (“We expect further progress on the μ-approximate shortest vector problem to enthrall middle-school students and other members of the local community, especially if they happen to belong to underrepresented groups.”) Now progress on the μ-approximate shortest vector problem also has to directly—directly—”benefit the American people.” It’s not enough for such research to benefit science—arguably the least bad, least wasteful enterprise our sorry species has ever managed—and for science, in turn, to be a principal engine of the country’s economic and military strength, something that generally can’t be privatized because of a tragedy-of-the-commons problem, and something that economists say has repaid public investments many, many times over. No, the benefit now needs to be “direct.”
The truth is, I find myself strangely indifferent to whether Smith gets his way or not. On the negative side, sure, a pessimist might worry that this could spell the beginning of the end for American science. But on the positive side, I would have been proven so massively right that, even as I held up my “Will Prove Quantum Complexity Theorems For Food” sign on a street corner or whatever, I’d have something to crow about until the end of my life.