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July 10, 2013 12:10 PM Battles in the War on (Social) Science

By Jennifer Victor

Rick Wilson has written an articulate essay on the value of public funding for the sciences.  It’s been well reported, here and elsewhere, that political science has come under attack from the frequent subjects of its study—Congress.  Congress has already restricted National Science Foundation funding to only political science research that promotes “national security or the economic interests of the United States.” This restriction appears likely to be continued into the next fiscal year, according to Wilson.

The essay goes well beyond noting the societal contributions of social sciences, and notes that the current political attacks on social sciences pose dangers for all of science.

Wilson articulately notes the difference between applied science and basic science.  Applied science refers to applications of scientific lessons, theories, or findings to “real world” problems. Through applied science, scholars and practitioners can positively use scientific findings to improve our world, make new discoveries, invent new products, and advance society—in everything from biotechnology to astropysics.  Wilson notes that some in Congress (especially House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX)) would like to see NSF’s mission redefine to focus only on these applied science type endeavors.

On its face, it may sound reasonable.  After all, shouldn’t public money have the highest standard of justification for its value?  However, in order for scientists, policy makers, or analysts to “apply” scientific findings, there must be scientific findings to apply. This is where basic science research comes in.  Through basic science research, scientists in all fields use their knowledge and tools to explore the microfoundations of our world. The questions and puzzles that scientists tackle through basic science may appear to have questionable value—and indeed they might. It is difficult to accurately predict when a basic science finding will translate into an applied science discovery. However, it should be apparent that without basic science research, and scientists’ own freedom and creativity to follow their knowledgeable instincts about valuable questions, there would be no applied science.

This doesn’t mean that scientists should be given an open checkbook to spend public money on any whimsical idea that crosses their laptop. Rather, we should have a system of checks and balances that ensures that public money is spent on only the basic science research that appears to have the most promising value.  Wouldn’t it be great if someone created such a system, and then designed a historically successful institution to implement it?  We have.  The system is peer-review and the institution is the NSF (among others).

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]