You would expect articles appearing in Scientific American (even on a blog) to be researched and written in such a way as to be sufficient basis for an informed opinion. Especially when it was written by a staff member. However, you would be wrong.
“Earlier this year, Senator Tom Coburn published a report called “Under the Microscope,” in which he criticized the funding of any research he couldn’t immediately understand as important. Of particularly dubious value, in Coburn’s opinion, are the behavioral and social sciences—including my own field, psychology. Following his report, Coburn proposed eliminating the National Science Foundation’s funding for these “human” sciences, writing: “…do any of these social studies represent obvious national priorities that deserve a cut of the same pie as astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, physics and oceanography?”
Wow. That really sets a tone! This article then continues with a general description of why studying the human mind is a worthwhile objective. This is followed by short explanations of 4 areas in which the social sciences have relevance for society. The arguments presented all seem reasonable and the Article ends:
“So my colleagues and I are in the unique position of needing to explain what we’ve done not only for the purposes of getting future work funded, but also so our work can be as useful as possible. To improve health and society, the spoils of psychology and its sister fields must reach a wide audience and overturn the misguided notion—embodied by people like Tom Coburn—that the human sciences have nothing useful to say. Here’s hoping this helped.”
All well and good, and here I was, getting all enraged about those ignorant Republicans, etc. etc. Readers of this blog will have realized that my sympathies are not to be found with the current GOP, and I even started to mentally outline a post about this new outrage.
However, I remembered having jumped the gun with a post sometime this summer and decided to take a look at the report cited in the article : Under the Microscope and I was very glad to have done so…
The impression given by the Scientific American post is that:
- The republicans singled out human science as the main area of cuts
- The republicans were thus going to help completely eliminate the basis for research in these areas
- This is due to the basic ignorance of republicans (“any research he couldn’t immediately understand as important“)
- The thinking community or researchers and scientists will now be forced to overturn “misguided notions” of people like Tom Coburn in regard to human sciences in order to receive future funding for important studies
When you actually bother to read the study in question, the proposal in the senate, and some of the original documents of the study, you get a somewhat different impression:
- The “Under the Microscope” report mentions 3 different areas where they believe significant cuts can be made, including the consolidation of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources – saving $9.67 billion.
- Before proposing the cuts, the report lists a number of studies in the area of human science whose uses for society are surely questionable such as “How long can shrimp run on treadmills”, or “If you trust your laundry folding to a robot, how long will you have to wait?”
- The majority of studies funded either never turn in a final report, or are at least 5 months late. According to an Audit of the NSF Office of Inspector General in 2004, 25% of the Projects of the Human Sciences never filed a final report.
- Funding for the Human Sciences is not limited to the NSF, in fact, the NSF accounts for only 4% of the total US federal spending on R&D. Existing programs in the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, or the Endowment of the Humanities are not touched by the findings of the report.
You can obviously disagree with the conclusions drawn by the people writing the report. But to dismiss the findings as invalid by insinuating ignorance of the authors and only very selectively presenting its findings is not helpful, not even in an opinion piece such as a blog entry.