Four Reasons to Fund Goofy-Sounding Social Science Projects

Earlier this week Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, wrote this piece arguing for limiting NSF-funded research to only that which was “in the national interest”, the standard embraced by the, “original statute that created the National Science Foundation.” I came across it via this tweet from Dan Drezner:

I assume the label of “uninformed” is earned by this line of Smith’s in particular, in which he seems to pretty significantly mis-characterize the experience of academics doing research abroad – one glance at the #FieldworkVacations search results should confirm that*:

Federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used to provide free foreign vacations to college professors.

But focusing on that error rather obscures his real claim, which on the face of it seems to be simply that as citizens we deserve greater transparency regarding NSF funding decisions than is currently available. Now, if you actually logic-out the implications baked into Smith’s piece, it’s hard to avoid concluding that (regardless of whether or not this is his intention) the result of subjecting NSF funding decisions to greater public scrutiny on the basis of whether or not the research in question is “in the national interest” would be a relative collapse in grants for social science research. As examples of “questionable social science grants” which have garnered NSF support Smith rolls out:

  • Ancient Icelandic textile industry, $487,049
  • Eco consequences of early human-set fires in New Zealand, $339,958
  • History of Chiapas, Mexico (350 BC-1350 AD), $280,558
  • Mayan architecture and the salt industry, $233,141
  • Do Turkish women wear veils because they are fashionable?, $199,088
  • How local Asian Indian politicians can improve their performance, $425,000
  • Lawsuits in Peru from 1600 – 1700, $50,000

And you know, it is probably fair to say that it is less than obvious to the average voter why the government has an interest in funding these projects instead of fancy STEM ones with explicit connections to things like lasers and flying cars and fusion energy and treating intractable diseases. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t fund them. In fact, I think it should, but because the case for doing so isn’t as intuitive as the one for lasers, it ought to be made frequently, and especially when an influential legislator is part of the conversation.**

I want to live in a country which sponsors all kinds of research, including projects on esoteric things like ancient Icelandic textiles. But I also try to take a view of government in which its activities should be fairly narrowly directed towards things like solving problems of market failure and providing public goods. Taken together, those mean the question (for me at least) then becomes one of whether or not the provision of research on ancient Icelandic textiles (I’m using this as a proxy for “social science reserach projects with mildly goofy titles”)  can legitimately be thought of as subject to market failure or as a public good.

The answer to the first question is almost undoubtedly yes – without government support who on earth would pay for that? A very bored Jeff Bezos? And it is probably a public good, too – academic journal paywalls notwithstanding. But is it a public good worth paying for; a failed market worth fixing? Yes, for four reasons.

1. It’s very hard to know now what will be useful later, and it’s very hard to know now what you will learn later. Sure, it seems prima facie unlikely that somebody knee-deep in, say, Peruvian lawsuits from 1650 (to pick at random from Smith’s list above) is going to find something with immediate relevance to Americans today. But you never know.
2. The people who do the obviously useful stuff (say, I dunno, biomedical research) like being around the people who do the “useless” stuff and the externalities they supply. That is, a successful research university is more than just a handful of labs and some state-of-the-art equipment, and it would be very hard to separate out just the “useful” parts from the enterprise as a whole. Look at Russia’s attempt to build Silicon Valley from scratch (hint: it’s not working) and you’ll see what I mean.
3. Not only is it hard to tell what will be useful and when it will be useful, it’s hard to institutionally disentangle all the parts, so if you want to have an academic infrastructure capable of doing things in the social sciences that you do find useful, you’ve got to support a whole mess of less obviously relevant things, too.
4. The pursuit of human knowledge for its own sake is a wonderful and glorious thing, and the government should promote it as much as possible. Given the size of the Federal budget, bitching and moaning about NSF grants is kind of like…well, it’s stupid and counterproductive.

*Actually, a lot of those sound like things I would kind of enjoy having happen to me on a “vacation” (ok, not the tuberculosis) – who wouldn’t want to be able to tell great stories involving Antonovs and alcohol (incidentally, that is the name of my new band) – but then again I am easily bored and kind of a weirdo
**Because obviously Representative Smith will 1) read this post and 2) change his mind because of it