Cantor and Smith: Social science witch hunt
It’s been a week now since US representatives Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith published an article on USA Today about “rethinking science funding.” Their main point is supposedly that we need to take a closer, critical look at how we fund science through grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF). On the surface their argument seems reasonable, even “common sense.” Below the surface, it’s little more than a disingenuous, ideologically-based attack on the social sciences. And it’s nothing new from Cantor, Smith, and their cronies. As a graduate student in anthropology–and a recipient of a dissertation grant from the NSF–it’s pretty infuriating to see these two politicians trying to intervene so recklessly into the funding process.*
I understand the need for both accountability and clarity in the whole grant process. Are there things that need to be changed? Problems that need to be addressed? Absolutely. There are always ways to improve how things work. Definitely. But what Cantor and Smith are proposing, despite some of their benign-sounding rhetoric, is not just some altruistic attempt to “help” make things better. In fact, what they are doing is more like a witch hunt than the “we’re doing this for the people” line they’re trying to sell to the US public.
Cantor and Smith begin their piece with a reminder about the US’s innovative past. They name Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Henry Ford to highlight some of the “most prominent Americans were also our nation’s greatest innovators.” However, they warn, America’s glory days of innovation could be a thing of the past. And if we aren’t careful, we’re going to get surpassed by countries like China and India.
America spends a lot on science, they tell us, but we are slipping. Especially in science and technology:
The Chinese now have the fastest supercomputer. High-energy physicists look to research conducted in Europe more than America. And NASA astronauts hitch rides to the Space Station on board Russian spacecraft.
This is the stuff that’s supposed to shock you, readers. The Chinese have the fastest supercomputer?? High-energy physicists prefer European research now? NASA has resorted to intergalactic hitchhiking? For Pete’s sake what has happened to us? Are you terrified yet? Worried about what’s to come next? Well, that’s just what Cantor and Smith are trying to stir up with their article. It’s called fear mongering–and this whole bit about the US losing its place in the world is the bait. Keep a close eye out for the switch–it’s coming soon.
The next part of the article is where Cantor and Smith’s argument starts to hone in on its target, which is the NSF:
To remain globally competitive, we need to make sure our priorities are funded and that the money is being used wisely. The National Science Foundation (NSF) spends nearly $7 billion of taxpayers’ money every year. On the whole, the process by which proposals are approved is a good one. Important research funded through the NSF has improved the quality of life for every American. It’s one of the best investments we can make in the future. In fact, all five Americans who won Nobel Prizes last year had received NSF funding.
Ok, that sounds pretty good. Seven billion goes to NSF, and a lot of the funded research is good. And it’s a good idea to make sure the money is used wisely, right? Who could disagree with that? It’s all so darn reasonable! But:
While the NSF spends most of its funds well, we have recently seen far too many questionable grants, especially in the social, behavioral and economic sciences. [bold added]
Ah ha! The culprits! It’s those pesky social scientists that we need to watch out for. This is the switch, by the way. They continue:
Research on subjects such as animal photos in National Geographic may sound interesting, but how does the federal government justify spending over $220,000 on such an endeavor?
So here’s where things start getting interesting. This is the part of the article where Cantor and Smith start cherry picking NSF-funded projects and lambasting them based upon superficial assessments. The “animal photos” project is a case in point (and one that has been a target for a while now). There is no discussion about the project, and I doubt Cantor and Smith took any time to actually look at the work itself. They simply try to list the title, make it sound as flippant as possible, and then proceed with their argument.
The “animal photos” project in question is the work of Linda Kalof, Professor of Sociology and Director of Animal Studies at MSU. The actual title of the project is “Picturing Animals in National Geographic, 1888-2008.” According to her bio page at MSU, she has “published more than 40 articles and ten books.” She has won multiple awards for her scholarship and teaching. Additionally, “[s]he was named a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics in 2008; appointed to the Advisory Board for the Detroit Zoo’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare in 2010.” She’s also part of a National Research Council committee that authored the recent publication Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward.
Clearly, Kalof has some experience behind her. You may or may not find her work appealing or interesting, or even outright disagree with her efforts, but you can’t deny the fact that she has obviously put time and effort into what she’s doing. You see, research like this isn’t just supposed to be something that everyone agrees upon, that everyone finds comfortable, or that everyone even likes. It’s supposed to challenge us, make us think, and push us to reconsider how we think about the world around us. Disagreement and debate about these sorts of issues are vital aspects of education, learning, and being a citizen. But Cantor and Smith don’t mention any of that. They are just trying to dismiss her work, period.
Here’s a selection Kalof’s abstract, which describes what her project is all about:
The evolving visual depiction of animals will be interpreted, taking into account scientific changes, natural history, environmental history, and the new aesthetic sensibilities provided by the history of landscape and environmental photography and by situating the magazine and its photographers, editors and photographic conventions in their broader historical, cultural and political context.
Cantor and Smith ask how the federal government can justify spending $220,000 on this sort of research. Well, for starters, if we could actually reach the NSF site right now we would be able to read exactly how this project was justified. But we can’t because the government is now shut down–thanks to some of the very same politicians who now think they should have a say in who gets NSF grants.
To me, investing money in Kalof’s project makes sense. It makes a lot more sense to me than this “trillion dollar embarrassment“, that’s for sure. Mostly because her work is all about looking deeper into the kinds of things that we might easily dismiss–like those National Geographic photos that we grew up with and never really thought much about. Her project is about looking into what those images tell us about ourselves, and our relationship with the natural world. In short, it’s all about understanding–which is one of the primary reasons for science and education in the first place. Right? And understanding, by the way, is the polar opposite of what Cantor and Smith are going for here. Make no mistake.
Sure, they admit that Kalof’s work sounds “interesting,” but ultimately argue that it does not merit government funding. They don’t really explain why. They just assume that readers will agree with them that a project about “animal photos” will not sound worthwhile. And then they list a few more “questionable” research grants:
- Rangeland management in Mongolia $1,499,718
- History of Chiapas, Mexico (350 BC-1350 AD) $280,558
- Mayan architecture and the salt industry $233,141
- Metallurgy in Russia (2100-1500 BC) $134,354
- Bronze Age in Cyprus $197,127
- Eco consequences of early human-set fires in New Zealand $339,958
- Study of the Gamo caste system in Ethiopia $258,639
- Causes of stress in Bolivia $19,684
- Auto shows in China $19,975
So here’s what’s happening: Cantor and Smith have highlighted these grants–and the associated dollar amounts–because they might sound strange, unfamiliar, or frivolous on first glance. And that’s all that we get here–a quick, sloppy, cursory glance at this research. With no explanation, it’s all too easy to dismiss. But take the grant about rangeland management in Mongolia. I am sure that could sound like a pretty strange project to many people. Rangeland? Mongolia? What?!?
But once you take a little more time to look into what it’s all about, it might not only make more sense, but also seem a bit more valuable (in that case, there may also be a certain political dimension to why Lamar Smith, in particular, doesn’t want it funded–notice that the project is specifically about rangeland management and global warming). It’s also important to think about the fact that the US has more than 770 million acres of rangelands, and it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that a study about rangelands in another part of the world could also provide useful insight for our resources here at home. But, once again, Cantor and Smith aren’t interested in fostering more understanding about these grants–they’re just pushing fear, misinformation, and underhanded ideology.
It’s important to keep in mind the fact that many grant titles–and this includes the “hard sciences” that Cantor and Smith purportedly champion–are going to sound a bit odd, particular, and, well, a little hard to understand. That’s sort of the name of the game when it comes to research, especially highly specialized, competitive research. Take, for example, the grant titled “Single Molecule Spectroscopy as a Mechanistic Tool for Studying Catalyst Reaction Dynamics,” which was funded via the NSF division of chemistry. I don’t really understand what it’s all about, especially based upon the title, but I will tell you one thing: I would much rather have the top US academics in chemistry deciding who does and does not get these grants, rather than politicians like Cantor and Smith. Or Tom Coburn. Period.
That seems pretty reasonable to me. But Cantor and Smith aren’t really going for “reasonable,” even if they put on a shoddy mask of reason. They write:
We all believe in academic freedom for scientists, but federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used on such research instead of on higher priorities.
See how “reasonable” they are? They are all for academic freedom after all–they just want some accountability. Never mind the fact that information about every single NSF grant that gets funded is posted online. Rosemary Joyce made this point quite well in her piece about this same issue.
And this is the point where Cantor and Smith’s argument take a turn for the stupid. Read this carefully:
For example, the Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing this summer on brain research where a wounded warrior who lost his arm to an IED explosion in Afghanistan showed members of Congress how his prosthetic arm could be controlled simply by his thoughts. Similar brain research could someday provide a cure to diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism.
With limited funding, we must prioritize. Congress is right to ask why NSF chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives.
Did you see that? That has to be some of the most disingenuous argumentation possible. But then, these guys are politicians. Of course funding has to be prioritized, but here Cantor and Smith make a blatantly false argument that the NSF somehow chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture INSTEAD of research that helps save lives! (this is another point that Joyce covers quite well in her piece.) That is such a ridiculous assertion it’s hard to even take these two seriously anymore. Here’s the long story short: The NSF has separate funding allotted for various types of research. When an archaeology grant gets funding, this in no way shape or form takes anything away from research for soldiers or “saving lives.” In order to push their own politics, Cantor and Smith are definitely taking the low road here.
Unfortunately, the only information available to the public about these NSF grants is a brief summary on the agency’s website written by the researcher, without any explanation for why such research is in our national interest and worthy of taxpayer funds.
Those summaries actually each explain what the “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts” are. The grant proposals themselves are dense documents intended to explain to the critical specialist reviewers what the research is, and convince us as reviewers that it is up to the best contemporary standards. The summaries posted online are limited in length and written to be accessible to the public. Writing these can be the hardest part of a funded grant proposal. But the congress members want you to think that these deliberately clear, short, statements are somehow denying you information you need.
So what do the congress members really want? They want to intrude on the process of peer review. They want to have politicians decide what is worth funding, rather than using the free labor of the best minds in the country as advisors helping NSF develop science in the public interest. They want to limit the research that the US funds to projects politicians think are going to produce some direct economic outcome.
Asking questions about these and other grants in order to obtain more information about why they were selected and how they benefit the American people is good policy and good government. If NSF has nothing to hide, why not provide Congress and the American public with a meaningful justification for why these grants were chosen over thousands of others?
Reprioritizing the government’s research spending in favor of improving Americans’ quality of life is not anti-science. It is common sense. We look forward to working with the NSF to address these concerns and to create a better process for evaluating research proposals.
On the surface, all of this sounds pretty reasonable, especially if you don’t really take the time to see what’s happening here. As already discussed above, there is in fact information about why grants were selected, and what sorts of impacts/benefits they might bring about. Cantor and Smith are just trying to create drama where none exists when they act as if the NSF might have “something to hide.” There’s nothing to hide–and if the damn government wasn’t shut down we could all go online and look at summaries of any funded NSF, whether in anthropology, geography, economics, chemistry, biology, or whatever.
My favorite part is where Cantor and Smith try to argue “hey, we’re not being anti-science here, this is just good common sense.” Right. As if intervening in the granting process based upon undisclosed ideological and political biases is somehow good for science! These two are playing themselves up as the reasonable, common sense politicians who are just trying to do good by the people. But that’s not what’s happening here. If they were really “looking forward to working with the NSF” to improve grant evaluations, there’s no way they would approach the issue by selectively trashing projects they *think* are unworthy (again, based upon an incredibly superficial glance on their part).
So let’s talk about the politics of all this. Cantor and Smith’s pretense is that they’re all about common sense. They are just trying to do what’s right by the American people. But this whole article is nothing more than an attack on the social sciences for purely political reasons. If you wonder why Lamar Smith might want to discredit a project that looks at rangeland management and global warming, well, maybe you should read a bit about his politics when it comes to global warming. And then check out some of Eric Cantor’s attempts at “working with the NSF” to improve the funding process. Really, go look at that last link and check out the suggested key words. Rather than encouraging people to read and find out more about these funded projects, he is encouraging them to cherry pick based upon a superficial key word search and jump in on his personal witch hunt. Really nice work there, Mr Cantor.
All of this is part of a longstanding effort on the part of some politicians, including Eric Cantor, Lamar Smith, and Tom Coburn, to attack and discredit the social sciences. It’s part of a larger, sustained effort to “pursue long-term political goals without too many people noticing“:
Which goals? Well, last month the General Social Survey found that, over 40 years, the fraction of American homes containing guns had slipped from 50 percent to 35 percent. That validated one of the Democrats’ gun-safety talking points—that “gun nut” culture was new, and less legitimate than hunting culture. That gun study was funded in part by the NSF. So are studies that send scientists to measure glaciers in Greenland; so was Earth: The Operator’s Manual, a 2012 documentary about climate change, for people who don’t have the time to measure glaciers.
There’s nothing worse, people, than an ideological war framed in the benign terms of public interest. If this isn’t enough to make more social scientists–across the board–stand up and take notice, I don’t know what will.
*Full disclosure: I am the recipient of a grant from the National Science Foundation. I was given what’s known as a “dissertation improvement grant” for my year of research about the politics of development in Baja California Sur. The research is about some of the conflicts over development that are taking place in a region that, up until this point, has remained relatively undeveloped. This place has a diverse range of residents, which translates to some very different ideas about what “development” should mean in the near future. A large percentage of these residents are from the US, which is a key issue for my research. It’s a study that examines various points of view in order to understand how the development process works. In my grant proposal I frame the projects in terms of the “political ecologies of value,” which is a pretty academic/jargony way of saying that I am looking at the moral, political, and aesthetic ideas behind development. It’s all about people, and how their ideas shape development. I am currently analyzing my interviews and data and writing up the dissertation. If you have any questions, or want to know more about what I am doing, please feel free to email me: email@example.com. You can also look up my proposal on the NSF website…when it’s back online.
Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently in Yucatan, Mexico with his family splitting his time between writing his dissertation and being on baby duty. He is the editor of the anthropologies project and also blogs at Anthropology in Public. You can email him at: anthropologies project at gmail dot com, or find him on Twitter (@publicanthro).
Note: Edited for clarity on 10/7/13