‘Pure hype of pure research helps no one’ says Sarewitz; what this says about freedom

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.

Autonomy and accountability — old and new thinking


Academics have tended to view autonomy as freedom from constraint by the state. We want to be able to go wherever our thoughts lead us, without ‘outside’ interference. This interpretation of autonomy as freedom from constraint is a negative definition, appealing to what is absent. It says, ‘Hands off!’

Politicians have tended to view accountability only in economic terms — that is, accountability has been reduced to accounting and conceived narrowly as something like return on investment (ROI).

Under such ‘old thinking’, autonomy is opposed to accountability, since accountability conceived as demonstrable ROI puts constraints on the autonomy of researchers conceived as freedom from such demands.


Autonomy means self-legislation, rather than freedom from constraint. Under this ‘new thinking’ on autonomy, the point is not for academics to be free from all constraint (the negative definition rooted in old thinking), but rather for academics to give themselves whatever constraints they are subject to.

Accountability means being able to give an account, in the Socratic sense of the term. This is by no means limited to a notion of ROI, though such may be included in the account one is expected to give.

Under this ‘new thinking’ on autonomy and accountability, the accountability demand is expressed as the formal demand that one give an account. There is no reduction of that account to economic concepts. One is free to offer whatever justification one sees fit. In other words, one is able to exercise one’s autonomy to respond to the generic accountability demand: account for yourself! Under this ‘new thinking’, then, accountability and autonomy are compatible.

Someone may be quick to point out that these are not really new definitions of the terms. So much the better!