I tend to agree with a lot of what Dan Sarewitz argues here:
Pure hype of pure research helps no one : Nature News & Comment.
But I also want to suggest that there’s an argument to be made against the High Quality Research Act that goes beyond Sarewitz’s claim that it helps no one.
To be fair, that’s just the headline. Sarewitz also claims something I think is a bit more controversial — that the HQRA is really nothing to get too worried about. Not only does it help no one, but also it doesn’t hurt anyone.
This strikes me as mistaken. I’ll try to articulate why in terms of the distinction between negative and positive freedom I’ve been exploring. Here goes.
First, I agree that the HQRA helps no one. But it’s not just that the HQRA is redundant — though this is certainly true. It’s also that it doesn’t allow us to do anything more to demonstrate our accountability, as I think the Broader Impacts Criterion does. In other words, it doesn’t increase anyone’s positive freedom.
Second, it actually decreases our negative freedom. By requiring NSF to re-certify what the merit review process already certifies (at least when it’s working as designed), this ‘added layer of accountability’ actually just increases the kind of bureaucratic red tape we should be trying to decrease if we’re interested in an efficient government. This makes about as much sense as the Florida Blue Ribbon Task Force’s suggestion to charge more for classes in majors that supposedly won’t result in better jobs for graduates. Majors that result in higher paying jobs actually should be in greater demand, and so should cost more, not less. But not according to the Blue Ribbon Task Force (see pp 22-3).
Finally, I think the HQRA might be a case study in how to reconcile notions of positive and negative freedom — or at least how to think of both ideas of liberty as possibly working together. It’s sort of a test. Sometimes, a policy that might increase our positive freedom can be seen as decreasing our negative freedom. I think the NSF’s Broader Impacts Criterion is a case in point. Yes, it places an additional burden on researchers, and so in this sense it is a limitation on their negative freedom. But it also increases their positive freedom, so that a trade-off is possible. The HQRA, on the other hand, decreases our negative freedom without also increasing our positive freedom. Any policy that doesn’t increase either our positive or our negative freedom is highly questionable — or so I am suggesting.