The Public Interest and Government Funding of Science

2015-03-16T17:08:09+00:00 January 27th, 2014|Science and Society|

By Melissa Jacquart

This post concludes our recent string on science and the public interest. The idea for this series was sparked by the Rotman Institute’s Science, Policy, and Philosophy Working Group reading Grischa Metlay’s 2006 paper, “Reconsidering Renormalization: Stability and Change in 20th-Century Views on University Patents”. The previous four blog posts in the series have discussed the role of values in science, what is meant by “the public interest”, who “the public” is in this context, and issues with patents that are the result of publicly funded research.  In this final post, I would like to draw on this previous discussion to looking at the role “values” and “public interest” plays in current governmental funding of science, specifically the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Prior to coming to the Rotman Institute, I worked for the NSF in Washington, DC area, as a Science Assistant. My experience there puts me in better position to comment on how these issues actually come into play in that governmental funding organization (rather than speaking to Canadian Funding Agencies). Similar to the Social Studies and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) in Canada, the NSF is a primary funding agency for non-medical fields of science and engineering research in the US.

At NSF, submitted research proposals are evaluated with respect to two review criteria: Intellectual Merit, and Broader Impacts. NSF’s Grant Proposal Guide defines these criteria in the following way:

Intellectual Merit: The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge.

Broader Impacts: The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

NSF sees good scientific inquiry as addressing both review criteria, and as such, identifies them as central scientific values. These review criteria are comparable to the point Hicks makes regarding values in science being judged as either intrinsic or instrumental goods. “Intellectual Merit” corresponds to an intrinsic good—what is valuable for it’s own sake. What makes an NSF proposal meet the intellectual merit criterion is that it makes an original contribution to a certain field of study. “Broader Impacts”, then, corresponds to instrumental goods—that which is valuable because they help us achieve or produce other goods. On the broader impacts criterion, the research is valued in that it will bring a benefit to society, or the public. For example, a research project might provide a new educational tool, provide employment opportunities, or provide the public with a new resource.

In these review criteria, NSF judges the value of a proposal based on its benefit to “society”, or its “desired societal outcomes”. This is the language NSF uses which corresponds to the terms “the public” and the “public interest” as discussed in the posts by Wuest and Wright. Here, we also see a failure to clearly define who makes up “society” and what is of benefit to them.  While the simple wording leaves possibility open to researcher and review panel to interpret as they see fit, it still suffers from ambiguity and associated problems discussed in the previous posts.

Debates about the value of research funded by the NSF can have significant political implications. For instance, criticisms of NSF funding decisions by US Senator Tom Colburn (OK-R) led to increased scrutiny of NSF funding practices, and changes in policy regarding what kinds of projects meet the standards for funding.

On May 26, 2011 Sen. Colburn released a 73-page report, “National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope”. The report criticizes numerous NSF awards, claiming they do not merit government funding. Following the report, Sen. Colburn proposed what is now referred to as the Colburn Amendment, which required any political science research funded by the NSF to be evaluated, under the broader impacts criteria, as “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

Following the Colburn Amendment, US Senator Lamar Smith (TX-R) suggested having every NSF grant application identify how the research “would directly benefit the American people.” In Fall 2013, Smith’s US Subcommittee on Research and Technology proposed that the NSF director be required to certify that “every grant will achieve one or more of a set of national goals which include strengthening the U.S. economy, bolstering national defense, increasing partnerships between academia and industry, and training the next generation of scientists”.

These proposals indicate that different conceptions of the public interest can have dire consequences for the normal practice of science. If these criteria were imposed, many scientists who rely on the NSF to fund their research would find themselves ineligible. Research projects in fields as vital as theoretical physics, history and philosophy of science, and the social sciences would likely fail to meet the proposed criteria.

Colburn and Smith have been criticized for misunderstanding of the aims and outcomes of scientific research and how it is conducted. It is not always the case that the future impact of research can be known when the research is being carried out. The history of science is filled with examples of this. Notably, during the development of the laser, no one could have foreseen its numerous practical applications. Although lasers play a vital role in strengthening the US economy and bolstering national defence, the initial applications developers foresaw were further optical experiments.

Additionally, Colburn and his allies have been criticized for targeting the social sciences, political science research in particular. One of the studies singled out by Colburn in his report as an example of problematic funding decisions was a study to determine the “impact of party leaders in the legislative process,” and ask “how successful are party leaders at mobilizing support for party programs?” To which the Colburn Report states, “Few Americans other than political party leadership in Washington, D.C. are likely to benefit from the findings of this research” (Under the Microscope, 44).

There are parallels between the case of Colburn and Smith’s revised criteria, the case of the patent-motivated research funding, as discussed in Brandt’s post. Brandt argues that patent law “problematically incentivises only certain kinds of solutions, sometimes shifts research away from the public good, and wrongly takes advantage of publicly funded research.” So too for imposing Smith’s sets of national goals on NSF funding. At the core of both these problems is a prioritization of economics profits, which does not necessarily lead to the best science being conducted on either value measures, intrinsically or instrumentally. The work of the social sciences is much more difficult to measure when value is placed on economics.

The recent interactions between Colburn, Smith and their allies and the National Science Foundation exemplify the dangers of not having well-defined conceptions of “the public” and “public interest”. They also highlight the importance of examining and clarifying what composes science values. Philosophers of science are well suited to solve some of these problems by clearly defining these terms (in addition to drawing attention to them).