Challenges in science and public policy redux.

In a post on April 3, 2012, I presented a notional list of ten substantial challenges for science and public policy. My thought at that time was that in successive posts I’d unpack each of the ten in turn. As some of you may have noted and as first-time readers can guess, events took a different direction. But it still seems a good idea to get back to of these and say a bit more.

To refresh memories, here’s the complete list:

1. Given the rapid pace of societal change and the accelerating pace of scientific and technological advance today, how can science policy be made more adaptive?

2. Given the fact that the U.S. Constitution (all older constitutions?) makes no provision for data-based policy (with the exception of the use of Census data to apportion seats in the House of Representatives), how might future policies be usefully based on data?

3. Given the inherent conflict of interest between gathering data and the formulation of policy and regulations based on those data, how can these two powers be separated in the policy process?

4. How can the policy process accommodate the notions of public-, private-, and mixed goods and services to develop new social contracts governing essential collaborations of the private- and public-sectors?

5. Given that social science and policy research inherently have political implications, how can research in these areas be funded by national governments?

6. Given that most policies are fragmented and sector-specific, how can more holistic, integrated policy frameworks be constructed?

7. How can two competing policy aims – the freedom of research needed for innovation and the private incentives needed for innovation – be fostered and balanced?

8. How can the value of competing policy options be assessed and compared, especially as that value consists of monetizable and non-monetizable components? What can valuations tell us about winners and losers for various policy options?

9. How can national-level science policies be constructed that will foster a diversity of place-based policy approaches at local levels?

10. How can science-based policies incorporate capabilities for learning from experience?

These don’t appear in any particular order. In a way, later posts on May 9 and May 22 explored a little bit of the thought process behind Challenge 4.

In that spirit, let’s talk today about Challenge 5: Given that social science and policy research inherently have political implications, how can research in these areas be funded by national governments?

Why treat Challenge 5 now? Because in late May, according to FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News, the U.S. House of Representatives made news by voting to zero out the political science budget of the National Science Foundation. The FYI article is worth reading in its entirety. From such a reading it’s clear that the article itself only begins to scratch the surface. Here’s a sample of the remarks made by Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in support of his amendment: “Now, I stand here today and I’ll defend responsible Federal spending on matters of Federal responsibility. Among other things, Congress ought to ensure funding for strong national defense, a secure border. There are things, however, given the economic realities, that Congress ought to reconsider funding on the back of future generations. Just remember, every dollar we’re spending in discretionary spending this year, we are borrowing from our kids and our grandkids.

“Let me simply say I can think of few finer examples to cut than the National Science Foundation’s Political Science Program. According to the NSF Web site, to date, more than $80 million has been awarded to the program’s nearly 200 active projects. Three-quarters of these awards, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion. Again, three-quarters of these awards under this program for political science research, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities that have endowments greater than $1 billion.

“Think about it. Three out of the four of the grants awarded by the NSF Political Science Program go to the wealthiest universities in the country. Would those who would oppose this amendment have believed that Harvard and Yale would have to close their political science departments if Federal grants are not available for this program? Of course not. These universities and the field of political science will be just fine.

“However, my greatest concern is not who received these funds, but how they are spent. Every dollar Congress spends is money we don’t have, as I mentioned.

“So what kind of research is NSF charging to our credit card? $700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis; $600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do. Let me say that again: $600,000 here spent trying to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do. I think we can answer that question in about 5 minutes when we vote on this amendment because I can tell you, people out there want us to quit funding projects like this. $301,000 to study gender and political ambition among high school and college students; $200,000 to study to determine why political candidates make vague statements. $200,000 to study why political candidates make vague statements. That’s what we’re paying for here.

“These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them. How can we justify this outcome?

“Now, I hold a graduate degree in political science myself. I agree that such research has its benefits. The work of political scientists advances the knowledge and understanding of citizenship and government, politics, and this shouldn’t be minimized. But they shouldn’t be subsidized by the National Science Foundation. We can’t continue to spend money like this. I urge adoption of the amendment and yield back the balance of my time.”

You get the flavor.

Originally, the National Science Foundation focused on the physical sciences. Funding for the social sciences came later, and has remained small. Back in the day, the criticism that would be leveled at social science by the physical scientists was a smug statement something like, “social sciences lack their inverse-square law…” The implication was that the social sciences lacked a simple, quantitative, foundation that was rich with implications for knowledge and understanding, like the law of gravitation, or Newton’s three laws of motion, or Maxwell’s equations. And therefore (don’t get cross with me here…I don’t agree with this, I’m just reporting what it was like back in the day), such “sciences” didn’t merit funding.

But increasingly, as science and technology of all stripes, even the physical sciences, are seen to be laden with implications for humankind, and therefore for human politics…as science has come to matter… it’s become clear that we need a better understanding of the psychological and social processes that help human beings (that would be us) and societies make important decisions…and indeed, how we process information from the physical sciences. We need to be as disciplined about our decision-making as individuals and groups and where that decision-making leads us as we are about the physical sciences themselves.

And disconcertingly, it turns out that the heart is deceitful above all things (Whoops! That’s the Old Testament, Jeremiah 17:9). Put another way, one simple statement seems to be operative in this realm:

We see what we believe.

Now all the progress of the physical sciences is based on the opposite…that if we conduct experiments and analyses and use the rules of logic and reach conclusions… then these conclusions are universally held and inescapable.

But in fact, we’re seeing every day that physical science has become a weapon in social arguments. Think storage of radioactive waste. Fracking. Health care and abortion/right to life issues. Climate change. Weather warnings. Turns out everything is laden with social implications, a psychological overlay… and more often than not, instead of believing what we see, we see what we believe.

Now this law may not feel as immutable as F=ma, but it probably is. And being human as we are, when we see that the conclusions of any science might work against our self-interest several steps down the road, we tend to dig in our heels early and challenge the premises…or cut the funding for the research. By refusing to see the obvious, we can feel free to continue to hold to cherished beliefs.

Works in the short run. For some people and for some groups, that is. Whether it’s in all our best interests over the long haul, as we try to extract resources, protect the environment, and build resilience to the hazards posed by the real world? Remains to be seen. In fact, all of us would agree that the odds are against it.

So the big challenge? How to build the understanding we need in this contentious realm.

The answer? I don’t have one. That’s why it’s a challenge.

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4 Responses to Challenges in science and public policy redux.

  1. Bill:-

    Excellent column.

    The one thing missing in your post that was in Rep. Flake’s argument is his recognition of constraint, which implies the need to make choices. He makes an easy one [for him] “Cut all of the poli-sci budget.” I must admit he argues his case pretty well, even if I don’t agree with it.

    What we need are a public, politicians and researchers willing to make hard choices. For at least the next decade, we are going to have very little discretionary income. We have to invest it as wisely as we can. To me that implies two things.
    1. We must be much more careful in what we fund – and I think Rep. Flake has pointed at some likely candidates for non-funding (And I don’t just point at the social sciences; there are plenty of projects in the physical sciences that shouldn’t make the cut.). I think that means much more purpose-driven research – research to inform policy choices we have to make. As a flaming independent, I deplore Sen. Reid’s refusal to prepare a Senate budget, because that is how we make many of these choices – the give and take of the budget negotiations between House and Senate (As an aside, developing a method to optimize choices among investments from vastly different domains would be a highly valuable contribution from the social sciences in this environment.).
    2. We must begin to develop a healthier model of funding academic and government research. What Rep. Flake has really done is signal to all of us that the present funding model won’t be very viable in the future. We need to consider how we can more effectively leverage gov’t, foundation, private sector funds to maximize investment – and the impact of those investments – in our future. It might be something like team-oriented programs (requiring several institutions be a part of each program, esp. including smaller, less endowed ones AND organizations who will put findings into practice), well-funded and aimed at “solving” big problems. I’ve recently reviewed several proposals relating to community resilience from New Zealand that are organized along those lines. I am excited about what may result from those that are funded.

  2. To put the choices we have to make into perspective…The cost of servicing our national debt has tremendously increased since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. One way to look at that is that our national budget is about two Katrinas less than it was in 2005, i.e., we have effectively lost the funds necessary to cope with two Katrinas. In other words, when the next disaster hits, we won’t be choosing among research projects to fund, we’ll be trying to decide whether to fund research in a given area vs bailing out some disaster-ravaged communities vs paying for Medicare’s skyrocketing costs. Not pretty, but our likely future. Hence the importance I place on making the wisest choices we can.

    • william hooke says:

      Thanks, John, for this thoughtful comment and the one above. We’ve just started our annual AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, and I’m tied up pretty much morning noon and night for the following ten days…not leaving much time for a thoughtful response…unless a little insomnia settles in 🙂

      I hope other readers will join in…my initial thought is the world has never stood in greater need of innovation, across the board, but especially in the public-good realm…research that might help us harness knowledge for societal benefit.

  3. Michael Cunningham says:

    Bill, my social science is economics. Climate scientist Judith Curry has blogged on and linked to many social science papers with a bearing on the CAGW debate, and they have been discussed by a wide variety of well-informed netizens at Climate Etc. I can’t quote from these debates off the top of my head, but a common theme in responses has been: why did they bother? What is the relevance? Where is the rigour – so many untested assumptions and unwarranted or unsupported conclusions/proposals. If I were, like rep Flake, concerned at cutting least-value discretionary funding, I’d certainly choose to cut many of these social science projects ahead of more worthy spending.

    I’m not dismissing social science out of hand – I recently attended a launch of a book “Right Social Justice: better ways to help the poor,” edited by former ALP government minister Gary Johns; the series editor and two of the authors are former colleagues of mine, they’ve done excellent and useful work; but at the same time, they rightly criticize much of the mainstream/academic left work in this area, and question its value.

    When you have a massive and unsustainable budget deficit, cuts have to be made. As an economist, I’d be looking to reallocate resources in ways which foster productive effort, increased wealth, increased saving, innovation, smaller government and greater self-reliance. Some social science work contributes – e.g. most of the work on early-childhood intervention has been done in the US, with an emphasis on trialling a variety of programs to produce empirical evidence as to what works rather than depending on untested theory, and such work certainly contributes to society at many levels; I drew on it as a policy adviser to address both social and economic issues. Some of it, however, appears to have little justification.

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