May 19, 2006

Hutchisonian science

As Mark Liberman notes in an update to his post, "Request for action from the AAA," Inside Higher Ed now reports that the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has rebuffed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's proposal to cut (or at least drastically deprioritize) social science funding in the NSF budget. The committee's compromise evidently involves a call for "increased support for physical science research," so presumably other disciplines would continue to be supported under the committee's proposal but not at increased levels. We'll have to wait for the text of the revised bill before we know for sure what specific recommendations the committee has made.

I was particularly struck by one paragraph in the Inside Higher Ed article:

Hutchison reiterated her feeling that Congress should "focus on science and technology" because "we are responding to a crisis in our country." Hutchison added that she is "not against social sciences being part of the NSF budget," but that "I want to make sure we focus on the mission we are after." Hutchison appeared to be using a broad definition of social science when she noted that biology, geology, economics, and archaeology are worthy pursuits, but can often stray from the innovation and competitiveness path.

Attention biologists and geologists! According to Hutchisonian definitions, you are now social scientists!

It's downright alarming that someone with such influence on the funding of the NSF and other research-related agencies doesn't seem to have a clue what counts as "physical" or "natural" science and what counts as "social science." One can only wonder why Hutchison felt the need to lump biology and geology in with disciplines that she regards as somehow peripheral to the "mission" of the NSF, like economics and archaeology. My best guess is that Hutchison's comment was intended as an indirect swipe at researchers doing work on such disfavored topics as evolution and global warming. This would be entirely in keeping with what Chris Mooney has identified as the Republican war on science.

Stay tuned for further senatorial edicts from the once august (now increasingly reactionary) body. I await the senator who announces, "I can't define hard science, but I know it when I see it!"

[Update #1: More coverage from ResearchResearch ("Hutchison amendment tweaked, social scientists relieved"):

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX, had originally sought an amendment designed to ensure a focus upon science and technology fields, but later reached a compromise with Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, who objected on the grounds that such language could stifle social science. The original amendment would have instructed NSF to give priority to research grants and activities that contribute specifically to "physical science, technology, engineering, or mathematics," but Hutchison explained that she agreed when Lautenberg added the words "innovativeness" and "natural science" to her proposal. "It's all good. We are really happy," said Barbara Wanchisen, executive director of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences.

Nevertheless, Hutchison stuck by the rationale of her original wording. "The awarding of tax money should be to further our goal of innovation and competitiveness in math and science," she told the committee. But, the senator clarified that she is not against the social sciences being part of NSF's mandate and mission. "I think that biology, economics, geology, geography, archeology, are all worthy of our study and there are some great studies going on in the fields of sociology," she said.

So apparently all disciplines would be eligible for prioritized funding, as long as they contribute to "innovativeness." Innovativeness is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Among Hutchison's examples of an "inappropriately supported" project is a study of how global and national economic changes are affecting urban women workers in Bangladesh. Such a topic is apparently not "innovative" and therefore unworthy of taxpayer funding from Hutchison's perspective. Will NSF-supported researchers now be subject to an "innovativeness" test to decide who gets to move to the front of the funding line?]

[Update #2: Based on the full quote from Hutchison provided by the ResearchResearch article, it may have been unfair for the Inside Higher Ed writer to say that she "appeared to be using a broad definition of social science" (and in turn, unfair of me to say that she called biology and geology "social science"). We know that she said she is "not against social sciences being part of the NSF budget" and further clarified, "I think that biology, economics, geology, geography, archeology, are all worthy of our study and there are some great studies going on in the fields of sociology." So to give her the benefit of the doubt, she may have been trying to recognize the significance of research conducted in a diverse range of fields, from economics and archaeology to biology and geology, rather than simply labeling them all as "social science." We'll know better what she was driving at once we see the full transcript of her remarks.

Also, Mark Liberman observes that a focus on "innovativeness" is nothing new for the NSF:

Having served on many NSF review panels, I can say that NSF proposals are already evaluated for innovativeness, both in terms of intellectual merit and in terms of broader social implications.
The word "innovation" occurs in 23,100 pages on the NSF web site; "innovative" on 7,980 pages; and "innovativeness" on 77. I expect that NSF will respond by increasing that last number.

[Update #3: Here's the agreed-upon wording, according to ScienceNOW:

After highlighting the importance of the "physical and natural sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics," the amendment explains that "nothing in this section shall be construed to restrict or bias the grant selection process against funding other areas of research deemed by the foundation to be consistent with its mandate, nor to change the core mission of the foundation." ]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at May 19, 2006 01:55 PM