Federal Funding of Science: Good and Bad

Recent Congressional activity has lead me to comment on public funding of research. The House Science Committee wants to put added criteria on what gets public funds via the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The criteria would limit political science research to only that which will further national security and defense. First, you can’t know the outcome of research until it’s funded and completed. If you did, two things are likely. Either you data mined for the answer you wanted, making your research ridiculous and inaccurate. Or, your research proved nothing, because you already “knew” your outcome.

Another criteria proposed relates to “groundbreaking” research. As any serious and respected researcher knows, it is rare that research is so groundbreaking. Most research appears mundane and bordering on silly and useless. Why is that? Because, in order to (hopefully) get that one great research project that leads to massive game changing results, you must first follow many paths. These paths might lead nowhere, or somewhere, or give you that tiny detail that enables you to get one step closer to the BIG answer you seek.

And what public (non-expert) entity is to decide if said research is, in fact, groundbreaking. If Copernicus or Galileo were held by such restrictions, we never would have found out that the world was not the center of the universe. And as we all know know, it’s not (I am! ^_^)

The third criteria speaks to not funding duplicative research.

Sounds great on its face right? Why spend money twice on something that needs only one payment? The ultimate money waster. If you believe this, you have NO idea how research works and might just as well return to your mass market “nonfiction” books and mock “journalism” stories.

Research findings must be replicated independently in order to be scientifically valid. Replication and duplicate research is the very heart of accurate and trustworthy research findings.

In all honesty, I can’t figure out which of these criteria is worse. National security criteria suggests Political Science research that doesn’t gain U.S. hard or soft power is worthless. This is the epitome of Double Think since Neoliberal thinking pushes the U.S. to force democracy on every other country. But public funds couldn’t be used by to determine the validity of this pedagogy unless the research question implies a potential outcome that leads to national security and/or health.

Groundbreaking criteria plays into mass appeal that studying the mating rituals of flies is stupid research that holds no validity. Lets get something straight. Looking back to the NASA program, the public funded a trip to a massive rock spinning around the earth. The public spent $25 billion (1969 dollars) to come back with a few chunks of rock. In the words of Eddie Izzard…”We’ve GOT rock. That’s the one thing we didn’t need.”

The rocks and the moon landing was the actual outcome. It was the research question, it was the findings. But is all we got from that rocket a bunch of space rock? No. We got batteries, ballpoint pens, computer technologies, Internet, Tang!!!!, and countless other innovations.

The third criteria feeds into this same mainstream craze where everyone thinks because they can see things and listen to one person pontificate, they have done “research.” They have. It’s called stupid research. It’s called spurious relationships, quackery,  and downright dangerous pseudo-statistics. Serious science requires replication.

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