Government Funding and the Economic Organization of Scienctific Research

29 September 2008 at 10:17 am Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

A prominent climate scientist, Richard Lindzen of MIT, argues that the politicization of climate science over the last decade is but a symptom of a larger, more general problem caused by government science funding: namely an emphasis on demonstrable results that satisfy the public and have “practical” implications, rather than the pursuit of scientific truth (via Sean Corrigan).

For a variety of inter-related cultural, organizational, and political reasons, progress in climate science and the actual solution of scientific problems in this field have moved at a much slower rate than would normally be possible. Not all these factors are unique to climate science, but the heavy influence of politics has served to amplify the role of the other factors. By cultural factors, I primarily refer to the change in the scientific paradigm from a dialectic opposition between theory and observation to an emphasis on simulation and observational programs. The latter serves to almost eliminate the dialectical focus of the former. Whereas the former had the potential for convergence, the latter is much less effective. The institutional factor has many components. One is the inordinate growth of administration in universities and the consequent increase in importance of grant overhead. This leads to an emphasis on large programs that never end. Another is the hierarchical nature of formal scientific organizations whereby a small executive council can speak on behalf of thousands of scientists as well as govern the distribution of ‘carrots and sticks’ whereby reputations are made and broken. The above factors are all amplified by the need for government funding. When an issue becomes a vital part of a political agenda, as is the case with climate, then the politically desired position becomes a goal rather than a consequence of scientific research. This paper will deal with the origin of the cultural changes and with specific examples of the operation and interaction of these factors. In particular, we will show how political bodies act to control scientific institutions, how scientists adjust both data and even theory to accommodate politically correct positions, and how opposition to these positions is disposed of.

The paper is well worth reading by social scientists and organization theorists. Business-school faculty will recognize the parallels with the call for “relevance” in management education (see the links in Teppo’s recent post). And there are important connections to the arts and humanities; recent scholarship, for example, challenges the notion that public funding produces better art (painting, music, literature, drama) than patronage or commercial funding (Cantor, Cowen, Scherer). Some readers may respond, with Pilate, “What is truth?” Somebody has to pay the bills, in other words, and that party will want something in return.

I should mention a recent listserv exchange in which somebody discounted an academic study published by a think-tank because the organization is supported by evil “right-wing” donors with private agendas. I replied:

Of course, this _never_ happens at public universities, where faculty are free to pursue Pure Reason with no concern for the wishes of administrators, state legislators, funding agencies, and others who maintain the purse strings. Thank goodness!

Seriously, at many universities the pursuit of “sponsored research” — external grants and contracts, mainly from federal, state, and local government agencies — has become the primary research mission. Do the preferences of these funding agencies affect the research questions asked and the answers given? You bet your sweet bottom dollar they do.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Classical Liberalism, Innovation, Institutions, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Public Policy / Political Economy.

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