Philosopher’s Corner: What Is Science in the National Interest?

It all began in the middle of the fourth century BCE. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics established a hierarchy of goods that laid the foundation for today’s science policy debates. A good pursued for its own sake would thenceforth lay claim to greater worth than goods pursued for the sake of something else. Although he recognized that applied research was also valuable, Aristotle concluded that laws should be passed to secure the pursuit of the highest good—the life of contemplation for its own sake. In today’s parlance, basic, curiosity-driven research is more valuable than applied, and society should serve science.

Scholars of science policy usually trace controversies over what research, if any, deserves public funding to the period between the publication of Vannevar Bush’s Science, The Endless Frontier in 1945 and the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) under the National Science Foundation Act of 1950. Keen to capitalize on the role that science and technology played in winning World War II, Bush argued that basic research—done for its own sake, without regard for possible applications, initiated and carried out by scientists on their own terms—was necessary to benefit society. President Truman had vetoed an initial version of this legislation, the National Science Foundation Act of 1947, and that seemed to quash Bush’s Aristotelian vision. Shortly thereafter, John R. Steelman, the first person to ever hold the title of Assistant to the President, issued another report, Science and Public Policy: A Program for the Nation, which recommended a different approach. Whereas Bush had strongly advocated scientific autonomy, Steelman argued for a much larger role for government in managing the research enterprise and linking it to national needs. Neither approach fully won the day, though the NSF created in 1950 more resembled the Bush than the Steelman proposal, preserving a great deal of autonomy for the scientific community to determine which research should receive public funds.

A February 16, 2016, New York Times editorial, “The Chirp Heard Across the Universe,” joined this battle over science policy. It opined that the discovery of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) demonstrated that the enhancement of human knowledge needs no additional justification. LIGO was “simply cool” and clearly showed the value of the 40-year, $1.1 billion NSF investment.

The point of the editorial, however, was not primarily to celebrate LIGO’s discovery. Instead, it was to criticize a bill introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Smith’s Scientific Research in the National Interest Act was supposed to make NSF and the researchers who receive its funding more accountable to the US taxpayer. Smith’s notion of accountability would be satisfied, in part, by requiring researchers to articulate in nontechnical language the benefits to society of their research.

Although such a requirement had been in place since October 1997, when NSF began making “broader impacts” one of the criteria applied in assessing research proposals, Smith’s bill would also have required researchers to explain how their grants were “in the national interest.” A list of activities that would satisfy the requirement was also provided. The Times editorial claimed that requiring NSF grants to be justified in terms of their being in the national interest would amount to “political meddling” of the sort that would have killed LIGO funding. Smith was quick to respond: “Contrary to your suggestion, the LIGO project would certainly fall under the legislation’s national interest definition to ‘promote the progress of science in the United States.’” Despite the fact that they disagreed about how to justify the claim, both the Times and Smith agreed that LIGO had been worth funding.

Though Smith’s bill was passed by the House, and despite the fact that it generated a great deal of discussion, it never became law. Instead, Congress passed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which contains a modified version of Smith’s bill. Smith’s list of national interests survived largely intact. But the law replaces “promoting the progress of science in the United States,” which was Smith’s justification for LIGO, with “expanding participation of women and individuals from underrepresented groups” in science.

According to the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, every grant by NSF is supposed to support research that satisfies one or more of these goals:

  1. Increasing the economic competitiveness of the United States.
  2. Advancing of the health and welfare of the American public.
  3. Supporting the national defense of the United States.
  4. Enhancing partnerships between academia and industry in the United States.
  5. Developing an American STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] workforce that is globally competitive through improved pre-kindergarten through grade 12 STEM education and teacher development, and improved undergraduate STEM education and instruction.
  6. Improving public scientific literacy and engagement with science and technology in the United States.
  7. Expanding participation of women and individuals from underrepresented groups in STEM.

Let’s take for granted that everything on the list is in the national interest of the United States. Nevertheless, questions arise.

Are all seven interests of equal worth? Suppose NSF receives four grant proposals, each in the same area of research, each with equally qualified teams, each requesting the same amount of funding, yet each focused on meeting different needs. One will help the economy, one will support national defense, one will improve K-12 education, and one will expand participation of women in STEM fields. NSF has enough money to fund only two. Does the list provide any way of helping NSF decide? And if it did, wouldn’t that be politicizing peer review?

Should proposals meeting more of these needs receive more funding than those meeting fewer? Maybe the proposal that will help the economy will do so by forming a partnership between the researchers and industry. The K-12 education proposal might also improve public scientific literacy. Are these proposals now more worthy of funding than those supporting national defense or the participation of women in science?

Is the list exhaustive? “Promoting the progress of science” was left off the final list. Are we to presume that promoting scientific progress is no longer in the national interest? Why did Congress replace it with expanding participation of underrepresented groups? What about graduate education? The list explicitly mentions only pre-kindergarten through grade 12 and undergraduate education. And do we expect our national interests to remain the same over time?

Why suppose that it is NSF’s responsibility to pursue these interests? Is it not enough to have the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Commerce, and Education, as well as the National Institutes of Health, to promote the nation’s security, economic strength, student development, and public health? Are any of the listed national interests the special provenance of NSF?

Why suppose that Congress is especially in touch with national interests? Congress is made up of representatives of the citizens of all 50 states, plus Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and four US territories. Although all swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, members of the House represent the interests of their constituents, and senators represent the interests of their states. More cynically, members of Congress may represent special interests more than national interests. Perhaps the sort of horse trading that happens in Congress is meant to result in judgments that are, in the aggregate, in the national interest. But it may be worth considering other ways to approach the question.

In October 2017, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the BASIC Research Act (S. 1973). Among several intriguing sections contained in this bill is the suggestion that NSF should include two new sorts of “peers” on review panels: a nonacademic expert from a field different from that under consideration for funding and a “taxpayer advocate” focused on determining the value of the proposed research to the US taxpayer. Rather than relying on a congressionally predetermined list of national interests that tries to cover all the bases, the bill would rely on taxpayers to make judgments on a case-by-case basis. It would be possible, then, for a taxpayer advocate to assess the value to the nation of a wide variety of research proposals.

Of course, Paul’s bill raises its own set of questions. How would the taxpayer advocates be chosen? Does it matter whether they are Democrats or Republicans? Would they have veto power on funding decisions? Would scientific peers listen to the views of nonexperts? Would a taxpayer advocate be swayed by how cool the research seemed to be? These questions, and more, would have to be answered before we could answer the main question: What does it mean for science to be in the national interest?

Although the mechanism for answering the question is different in the existing law and Paul’s bill, the basic intuitions underlying both seem to be the same:

  • If taxpayers are funding research, the research ought to benefit the society funding the research.
  • If research benefits society, it ought to be either obvious or defensible on those grounds.
  • Although the vast majority of scientists who propose, review, and receive funding for research from NSF are US citizens, scientists who have a scholarly stake in the sort of research that is funded cannot be trusted to put national interests over their professional interests—or perhaps even to consider societal benefits in their assessments.

NSF’s Broader Impacts Merit Review Criterion already satisfies the first two. But it depends on the good faith of the members of the scientific community to take benefits to society seriously as a criterion of funding. Members of Congress may still not fully agree on how to hold scientists receiving federal funding accountable to the public, but current laws and proposed legislation indicate agreement on one key point: Scientists cannot be trusted to pursue science in the national interest of their own accord.

In the end, we come back to Aristotle. Should society serve science, or should science serve society? Aristotle argued for the former, on the grounds that science (metaphysics, for Aristotle, which would reveal the truths for people to contemplate) pursues the highest good. From an Aristotelian perspective, basic scientific research itself is in the national interest, just because it is cool; society should be organized to foster its pursuit. To the extent that members of the scientific community share this belief, they will view legislation meant to guarantee accountability as political interference.

This also reveals a crucial difference between science in Aristotle’s day and our own. Aristotle did not have our assumption that science is supposed to enable technological development that will spur economic growth. This has become a truism—a truism that now needs questioning.

It is obvious in theory that some science is in the national interest, can benefit society, and could change the world for the better. To avoid a bad outcome for both science and society, we need to go beyond the Aristotelian fixation on the life of contemplation. Scientists may want society to give them money and leave them alone to pursue truth on their own terms, but society today seems no longer to like that deal (if it ever did). Scientists may hold the keys to unlock knowledge of eternal truths, but Congress holds the purse strings. As Sen. Paul put it, “There’s a lot of bizarre stuff that everybody agrees should not be going on. And if you don’t fix it, the danger is that people [in Congress] will get tired and there won’t be any more money for research.” Put differently, if scientists fail to answer the question “what is science in the national interest?” society will answer it for them. Or maybe society will start asking a more pointed question: Is science in the national interest at all?

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Cite this Article

Holbrook, J. Britt. “Philosopher’s Corner: What Is Science in the National Interest?” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 4 (Summer 2018).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Summer 2018