‘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.

NSF Says No to Congressman’s Request for Reviewer Comments – ScienceInsider

The latest in the showdown between Rep. Lamar Smith and NSF.

NSF Says No to Congressman’s Request for Reviewer Comments – ScienceInsider.

Interesting to think about the limits of confidentiality here.

What does it take to be ‘liked’ by scientists?

Scientists don’t like me. Or, at least, they don’t show any evidence of liking what I have to say about NSF’s Broader Impacts Merit Review Criterion. Last week, I blogged this ScienceInsider interview (here and on the CSID blog) with an unnamed congressional aide connected with Rep. Lamar Smith and his efforts to add “an extra layer of accountability” to NSF’s Merit Review Process.

I also left a couple of comments in the comments section under the article itself. It’s possible for readers of ScienceInsider to press buttons to indicate their agreement — or not — with comments. The site then tracks the number of likes or dislikes (expressed by pressing up or down carrots), displays them with each comment, and moves those comments with the most likes up to the top.

Guess whose comments are dead last in line?

Here are the two most-liked comments:

lollardy3 days ago

Studying dairy production in China is a very poor choice for an example of what constitutes a bad grant. It has direct relevance to something most people in America consume every day. It could reduce cost for millions, increase food safety, improve the quality or nutrient density of a commonly consumed item, etc. Every time I hear a story on Fox about a “wasteful” study, I can usually think of ten ways it could benefit people and industry here. Somehow I think the time would be better spent putting in an “additional layer” to cover pentagon spending.

Kenneth DeBacker4 days ago

A lot of smoke is being blown by Rep. Lamar Smith’s aide. The aide’s answers are slick and cover’s the real intent of the bill- to politicize the sciences through selective funding or defunding of areas of study Republicans do not like. The most egregious example would be the ban on studying gun violence in America.

Each of them has received twelve likes.

I suppose if I were simply to say that Congress is out to politicize science or that Smith is out of his depth or that scientists should be left alone to pursue research however they wish, scientists might like that. But I’m willing to give Smith the benefit of the doubt, at this point. My contention is that he (or his aide) doesn’t yet understand the revisions to NSF’s Merit Review Process. If he did, then I think he’d see that accountability is already built into the process. I think Smith should not introduce the High Quality Research Act, but instead should seek to monitor how scientists respond to the new Broader Impacts Criterion.

But there’s a real problem with what I’m suggesting. And it’s not that Smith is a Republican out to get science. The problem is that scientists themselves don’t understand the Broader Impacts Criterion. They don’t understand that this is their last, best hope to preserve their academic autonomy while meeting accountability demands. And they don’t want to hear it, either.

To see my comments on the ScienceInsider interview, simply follow this link and scroll to the bottom of the page.

ScienceInsider’s latest on NSF Merit Review and the draft ‘High Quality Research Act’

Holdren Attacks House Bill, Defends NSF’s Grant Selection Process – ScienceInsider.


Euphemisms, Dysphemisms, and Playing Politics in Science Policy

It’s interesting to read Representative Lamar Smith’s statement on his circulating a draft bill to “improve accountability” at NSF.

Smith sees himself as ensuring accountability by “adding a layer” to NSF’s Merit Review Process, while also preserving that process (the direct quote of his characterization is that the bill “maintains the current peer review process and improves on it by adding a layer of accountability.”)

Others, however, see him as impinging on the integrity of the Merit Review Process — or even starting down the road to dismantling it.

I partially agree with one point that Smith makes in his statement about the matter. It will be a shame if this turns into a politicized debate, with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. This issue is too important to devolve into such petty politics.

I also agree that those of us who receive NSF funding should be accountable to Congress and the taxpayers who fund our research. But I think NSF’s recently revised Merit Review Process should be given a real chance to work before Congress intervenes in the way Smith is proposing.

National Science Foundation and Tom Coburn: The Republican effort to cut government funding for social-science research. – Slate Magazine

National Science Foundation and Tom Coburn: The Republican effort to cut government funding for social-science research. – Slate Magazine.

This started with a war on social science, but it’s going beyond that at this point. Lamar Smith is going for more control over all public funding for science. Although this looks like a ‘Republican’ war, I’m not convinced. It’s basically a neoliberal move — use the State to marketize everything.

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!