Are medical or legal studies more relevant to the “real world” than physics or psychology? Questions like that are important and formative areas for impressionable undergraduate students, but ultimately the more important questions seem to go unacknowledged.
First, what is the “real world?” And second, why is our baseline for importance constantly weighed in terms of immediacy and general public good?
This new and inquisitive perspective on relevancy seems to be escaping the traditional confines of undergraduate life and entering into a much more politicized public sphere; namely, the United States Senate. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) proposed a measure earlier this month to prohibit National Science Foundation (NSF) grant money from being allocated to political science research.
I do acknowledge the obvious absurdities of Coburn pushing for such a platform in the middle of debates on health care and economic transparency, as well as the nearly unshakable chances that his proposal will not pass, and the rebuttal that one of this year’s Nobel winners (not Obama) was a recipient of NSF grant money. Despite all three absurdities, Coburn’s actions still have useful implications in two key areas.
The most obvious affected area is political science and academia itself. Coburn’s proposal has merely publicized debates that have been endemic inside most (if not all) political science and academic departments. Political science research often ranges from irrelevant (to the general public) and highly scientific case studies to highly relevant and policy-determining foreign policy assessments.
By calling out the more theory-inclined individuals in the discipline, Coburn has provided the marginalized with a rare opportunity to become politicized. Coburn provides researchers with a key opportunity to show how theory often provides the foundation for “real world” research. Essentially, they can demonstrate that both theory and “real world” studies are symbiotically linked such that one cannot adequately function without interaction with the other. Cutting funding to seemingly non-relevant research areas will only function to stifle the areas that politicians and the general public do care about.
The second affected area is on how we think of publicly funded research in general. During the election campaign, Sarah Palin criticized laser beam research on flies but this same research is now providing interesting results in memory manipulation and potential treatments for neurological illnesses. We can never be sure what new and compelling results will arise from even the most obscure research platform.
Furthermore, the NSF was created for the purpose of funding research that might otherwise be left behind. NSF grant money is supposed to be allocated to interesting research that promotes learning, innovation, and scientific progress. In this capacity, the NSF is not mandated to fund publicly useful research and in fact such a mandate would seem contradictory. Often the most publicly useful research is found within more restrained and less radicalized issue areas and therefore does not represent progress or even a determined effort to expand the confines of our knowledge.
Even though his proposal will not be taken seriously, he provides both a useful opportunity for debating what the goals of scientific research should be and how “non-real world” and “real world” research interact and mutually sustain each other. How relevant are you? And more importantly, how relevant do you think you should be?