NSF Should Stop Funding Social 'Science'

By Tom Hartsfield

The National Science Foundation was created in 1950 with a mandate to further science, engineering and technology in the United States. This was based on the awareness even then of just how important these fields would be for the future prosperity of the nation. For 2011, the NSF was granted about $6.8 billion to fund research, large-scale equipment, facilities and science education. Almost every important science and engineering project of the past 60 years (excluding NASA and medicine) has been supported by NSF money.

A quick search however shows that the concept of the NSF's mission has been expanded. "Urban food system alternatives," "how power affects empathy" and "outlook on life and political ideology" are all recent projects to gain NSF funding. These works do not study chemical digestion, measure watts or explore the origins of biological systems.

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This past week, legislation was introduced in the U.S. Congress to cut NSF funding of political "science," to the dismay of some. Politicians cherry-picking projects to be allowed and funded is certainly not a pleasant notion. That said, this amendment does not target any specific study or research; it actually brings to light an important debate on the more fundamental nature and scope of science itself.

Without any discussion about the merit, utility or quality of political and social research, it is important to distinguish the difference between science and "social science." As a scientist, anything I publish under my name is subject to a level of scrutiny far beyond anything familiar from everyday life. When I present data, it will be scrutinized by many critical eyes. It will be tested against the real world by the wisest and most talented people who can understand it. If flaws or errors or ambiguity or irreproducible claims are found, it will be discarded and my reputation will quickly suffer.

By forcing research to be conducted in a manner that is repeatable, exact and quantitative, science has succeeded brilliantly at furthering human conditions and knowledge. This success rests on the fact that within its framework, experiments may be repeated over and over by many people to make sure that they are accurate and correct. Science does not long harbor falshehoods. It enforces a rigorous ethics of truth, of fidelity to nature. Science is defined by this trait, which also restricts its application to those problems which we are clever enough to formulate within its structure.

Political "science" however plays by a separate set of rules. There is often no way to irrefutably prove or disprove, agree or disagree with the claims and conclusions presented. There is little quantifiable truth and much subjectivity. This is not to discount the value of work in this field or others like it. The study of life and society as well as art, literature, history and other things unquantifiable certainly has value and has a place in our consciousness. I simply contend that it does not fall under the jurisdiction of science. It does not and cannot follow the rigorous requirements of reproducibility, testability and objective truth required of science.

Why should the National SCIENCE Foundation fund non-science?

Tom Hartsfield is a physics Ph.D. student at the University of Texas. He is a regular contributor to the RealClearScience Newton Blog.


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