In Praise of Social Science and Science Studies at NSF

Consider this a slightly belated reaction (and a slightly different take) to the proposed bill from Congressman Lamar Smith that would propose the National Science Foundation certifying all research is

  1.  “… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
  2. “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
  3. “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

I’d like to address why requiring ALL projects funded by NSF to meet all these criteria is bizarre (especially 3, preventing the funding of multiple research paths or even funding what would essentially be the  reproducibility of an experiment suggests Smith literally does not know how scientific research is done), but I’ll save that for a future post. But for now I’d like to address what seems to be some of the underlying motivation of the first criterion by looking at the projects Smith seems to be concerned by.

Smith is referring to the mission statement of the NSF from the legislation that created it: “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” But his criterion just focuses on the benefits of technological progress as entities in themselves and ignores the broader ecosystem of science and engineering which they come from. I kind of sense this in Smith’s letter to the Director of the NSF, where he asks that NSF provide the reviews from the following approved grant proposals:

  1. Picturing Animals in National Geographic, 1888 – 2008 (awarded $227,437) (that link no longer works, use this new one)
  2. Comparative Histories of Scientific Conservation: Nature, Science, and Society in Patagonian and Amazonian South America (awarded $195,761)
  3. The International Criminal Court and the Pursuit of Justice (awarded $260,001)
  4. Comparative Network Analysis: Mapping Global Social Interactions (awarded $435,000)
  5. Regulating Accountability and Transparency in China’s Dairy Industry (awarded $152,464) (that link no longer works, use this new one for Regulating Accountability and Transparency in China’s Dairy Industry)

3 struck me as funny, because evidently Representative Smith finds understanding the efficacy and perception of international legal systems to not be relevant to the welfare of the United States. 4 also seemed weird because in the abstract they made a direct case of how mapping social networks could be used to better prevent disease and also how understanding social networking is important in understanding the spread of phenomena like the Arab Spring.

Projects 1, 2, and 5 are studying science and technology in society. Looking at pictures seems trivial, but it’s more than that. National Geographic is a major popular science publication so it can be representative of other trends. The project is seeing how changes in science affect the portrayal of nature and views of conservation. Project 2 sees how an aspect of environmental policy has interacted with society. Conservation is now a major component of American policy, at all levels of government. Project 5 looks at a major application of technology: regulating food production. And they’re specifically interested in how technical practices are chosen. Did Smith forget about the melamine scandal? Understanding how these policies affect people and how they come about actually seems relevant to improving regulatory systems, which would seem appealing to someone who hopes to make government more efficient.

All three of these projects also want to see and produce work about how scientific knowledge diffuses to the life of everyday people. That is actually incredibly relevant to the point of NSF (it’s the whole broader impacts part they require researchers to have) because it’s part of how you justify spending taxpayer money. Part of the wonder of science isn’t just all “whizbang we have iPhones with video cameras to talk to mom and can communicate with satellites in orbit to figure out where you are”, although the Chinese regulation project also kind of covers this too (although it’s more commercial industry than consumer). But shouldn’t we be proud that most people in our society now actually learn about the history of Earth and life and learn some of the basic science that explains everyday life?

So these things all can affect our lives, and it makes sense for the NSF to fund projects that study the social aspects of science. I’m also going to say I’m not sure most of Smith’s supporters have even really read these abstracts since they never seem to know about the broader impacts or the actual research project, and mostly focus on how funny the titles sound.

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