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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

So Much for the Freedom of Inquiry

As part of their passage of legislation to keep the Government running, the Senate voted unanimously to support an amendment offered by Tom Coburn to limit NSF funding for Political Science grants to projects that develop "national security or the economic interests of the United States."   Coburn's hostility to Political Science research can be found here.  The text of the amendment itself is provided here.

Although everyone recognizes that topics go in and out of favor for funding by granting agencies, Coburn's amendment and its voice vote approval is a terrible development.  It is another example of politicians effectively limiting the freedom of inquiry under the guise of fiscal restraint.  In this case, it is particularly striking because if you read Coburn's statement above you will see that he objects in quite fundamental fashion to research that helps clarify how American politics actually operates.  I wonder why.


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Chris said...

The weird thing (besides the fact that he doesn't realize the phrase is "pore over," not "pour...") is that a lot of the studies discussed so dismissively by Coburn have immediate, real-world application- stuff that you'd expect a capitalist swine like him to jump at.

Studying whip counts? That seems to me to be vital to an understanding of the modern political system.

A grant given to study the 2008 election debates? Regardless of what one thinks of President Obama's socialist/centrist/self-described-moderate-Republican-from-the-1980s policies, the 2008 election was unprecedented in American history.

And then there's the utter pettiness: Coburn holds up a study, funding at _under a thousand dollars_, as an example of government waste. Seriously- I'm dirt poor, have never made more than $30k a year in my life, and _I'd_ be willing to fund that study out of pocket.

Oh well, that's America for you: comity everywhere and a slavish devotion to Senatorial collegiality.

TB said...

As sympathetic as I am to the actual substance of this post (and annoyed by direct political meddling in the NSF's setting their priorities), I find the title of this post rather bizarre, if not purposefully misleading.
How does absence of funding for a particular topic equal an infringement on the freedom of inquiry? Does the amendment specifically prohibit political studies outside of what it keeps funded? Does it promise any repercussions for having these studies funded by private foundations/think tanks etc.? Now, I completely agree with you that it's a *stupid* amendment, but please don't overstate your case. While I am lucky to have my research fully funded at the moment, I have a number of friends and colleagues in related fields -- e.g., among mathematicians -- who routinely go for years without being funded while fully engaged in their research. They do complain about the lack of funding, but not about the lack of academic freedom. Last time I checked, Socrates (who I believe is the man depicted here) went on without any explicit state funding, and once the state decided to interfere with his academic freedom - it was not about funding either. With all my sympathy, political scientists are not quite there yet.

Michael Meranze said...

Thanks for the comment. It is an interesting question. I did think about it and obviously decided in the end that it wasn't either "bizarre" or "misleading." Technically, of course, you are right: no one is threatening to throw a political scientist in jail for writing on one of the non-fundable topics. But that seems to me to miss the point which is, as you point out, the intrusion of a particular external politics into the evolution of disciplinary inquiries. All of us, I assume have had grants proposals turned down. Sometimes that has caused us to drop a project because it is too expensive and sometimes not. But we are all operating on the assumption that the decisions that are made are made according to the logic of open inquiry and not because some topics have been declared to be off-limits by a political group.

You mention mathematicians but what if we took another example. Say Senator Inhofe was able to get a law passed to forbid all federal funding for research into climate change. Would you really think that that was not an attack on the freedom of inquiry? That it was just "stupid"?

I tend to think of this in context. Sure Socrates didn't get funded by the state. But in a world of large institutions where there is a very limited amount of private funding for much of social science to simply rule a whole field out of bounds (and let's face it Coburn would have preferred to banish all political science research) does seem to me to strike at the freedom of inquiry when we think of inquiry as a collective and ongoing process.

TB said...

You open an interesting topic, and I am not sure I fully agree with you here. Your (so far hypothetical) example of a climate change research is well taken; in fact we had an actual, real-life example of such political meddling: a ban on federal funding of any research involving embryonic stem cells during the Bush era. My personal opinion: a bunch of religious twits and their politicians had succeeded in hampering (at least temporarily) a very valid and promising research direction. Yet I am not at all convinced that arguing against that decision in terms of freedom of inquiry would get you anywhere or, for that matter, would even constitute a valid argument. This is the usual problem with democracy: people whom I consider twits pay taxes, cast votes and have their opinions (and I suspect their opinion of me is no more favourable than mine of them). The point is: as long as the society at large supports various types of scientific inquiry, its members should have both the right and means to decide what kind of research should be supported. E.g., should we provide funding for research on synthesizing deadly viruses? Or was it a good idea to fund the Manhattan project? The latter is a perfect example of a politically motivated funding decision, and it seems the verdict on its wisdom is not unanimous even with the benefit of a 20-20 hindsight. Now, you may argue that these examples are atypical: after all most funding decisions are not driven by the “prisoner's dilemma”, do not revolve around deadly substances or deal with external political circumstances. Let me give you another, more social science oriented example. Should we as a society support research into possible innate differences in intelligence and other abilities between various groups? I don't think one can just dismiss the question as illegitimate; after all we have been learning that many traits have a strong genetic component. But should we pay to find the answer? An argument can be made for it, provided that depending on the outcome we are prepared to reevaluate various social policies and priorities. An equally valid argument can be made that good social policies are not always based on hard scientific data. Certain scientific (as in “falsifiable”) hypotheses and, particularly, not fully decisive data supporting or refuting them may be highly divisive. I came to this country just in time to watch the fallout from the publication of the infamous “Bell Curve”. Ten years later I watched Larry Summers' fall from grace for (ineptly) suggesting certain ideas along the aforementioned lines. Whatever you may think of those ideas (and I am purposefully refraining here from discussing them), the reaction both in the academic world and in the society at large went far beyond criticisms of their methodologies in data collection and data analysis.
I think the society may legitimately choose not to pay to have certain questions answered *now*, even if those questions can be formulated scientifically. In a democracy this is done via representatives who may choose to pass laws, stupid or otherwise. We, academics, may agree or disagree but I don't think that framing the issue in terms of the freedom of inquiry is correct. The best we can do is to educate the public why they (and their representatives) might be wrong. As was the case with the embryonic stem cells, elected representatives change and with them change the rules. If we continue educating the public why certain research directions are important, there is a fair chance we will succeed.
Insisting on the right to be funded as a matter of freedom of inquiry, I am afraid, makes one look aloof and only feeds to the stereotypes and misconceptions that the public may already harbour towards us, academics.

Michael Meranze said...

TB--sorry I never got back to you. Have been swamped. But I ran across an article that took a different take than either of us that I thought was interesting. You can find it at:


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