Soapbox Post

A friend of mine in Singapore believes my work on anticipatory governance of emerging technologies ( barely cloaks an ingrained hostility to science.  Science is science, she thinks and, like Max Weber argues in “Science as a vocation,” democracy doesn’t have much place in it – unless it is perhaps through do-it-yourself approaches like garage synthetic biology. 


She recently sent me a provocation: a seeming attempt to democratize science and policy by inviting citizens to help balance the US federal budget by searching through a database of research sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and choosing projects they felt were wasteful or inappropriate.  This web-based, participatory science policy tool, called “YouCut,” is on the site of Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia and whip-in-waiting for the new majority in the upcoming Congress.


Of course, Cantor’s “tool” is really a stunt – a piece of demagoguery akin to any biased Internet poll rather than an authentically democratic expression of the vox populi.  The only folks whose opinions will be registered will be the most committed among the already committed Republicans who visit his website – those who already agree that “[r]ecently, however, NSF has funded some more questionable projects.”


This stunt is not novel, despite Web 2.0 sophistication.  Cantor, like Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) before him, seeks to take individual research projects out of the intellectual and, indeed, political context in which they were formulated and evaluated and hold them up to the ridicule of conventional wisdom.  Such examples, upon which Senator Proxmire bestowed his “Golden Fleece” awards, then become synecdoches for the entire scientific enterprise.  If the peer review process at NSF is so flawed that such patently absurd research topics get funded (Cantor suggests search terms you might use: “success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc.”), then the whole system must be rife with waste and abuse, in which self-dealing and back-scratching masquerade as peer evaluation.


Second, democracy does not require holding a plebiscite on every government action.  To be democratic we need no more vote on every grant funded by NSF than we need to vote on whether a region plagued by drought should be declared a federal emergency, whether a police officer should arrest a criminal suspect, or whether a particular taxpayer should receive a particular tax break.  To pretend that this is so is to give comfort to the oldest slander against democracy.


Our more complicated, constructive, and contemporary vision of democracy includes not only expression of the popular will, but also limits on the force of that expression by putting some issues, e.g., constitutional constraints on the design of democratic processes and institutions, out of the range of transient majorities.  It includes not only the ability to choose and reject leaders at the ballot, but also the ability of those leaders and their delegates to engage in discretionary action (and the awarding of a research grant is, by the law, a discretionary authority of the secretary of that department or director or administrator of that agency).  It includes an emphasis on transparency of information gathering and analysis, but also reasonable privacy in the communication of advice to decision makers (and thus appropriate cordons for executive privilege and, in this month of Wikileaks, for diplomatic candor).


Third, the benefits of democracy – over other forms such as enlightened despotism – are importantly those of self-governance that come from the discussion and deliberation of public issues and the public ownership of or responsibility for their results.  Cantor’s website offers none of these benefits.  Serious attempts at public deliberation and budget reduction include, for example, AmericaSpeaks’ inspiring and hugely ambitious 21st Century Town Hall Meeting on the budget deficit, which gave 3,500 citizens in 57 cities the opportunity to deliberate on how to correct the trillions of dollars at stake.


Weber is right that democracy has its place.  But the demarcation line is not between science and politics, for the two are well intermixed already.  We need to democratize many elements of American society along with science (and my agenda for democratizing science can be found here), because the real fleecing of America does not occur on the scale of individual research projects that, over two or three years of expenditures, would just barely reach the cut-off for the annual income of the wealthiest Americans in the current tax debate.


A broad public dialogue akin to AmericaSpeaks’ on the scope and priorities of the US research and development enterprise would be one thing, and a positive thing.  But Cantor’s stunt should not pass for analysis, web voting should not pass for deliberation, and demagoguery should not pass for democracy.



About the Author:  David Guston is co-director of CSPO, director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU, and a professor of politics and global studies.
Howard Silver
Dec 15, 2010 @ 1:26pm
Yes this is a political stunt. More threatening is a Boehner-Cantor letter to the President in June 2009 suggesting that NSF's social and behavioral science research divisions have their budgets cut by 50 percent.

This is why the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) was established in 1981 to fight Reagan/Stockman cuts and as Yogi said, It is deja vu all over again.

We look forward to help from the social/behavioral science community in fighting the latest in a long line of threats to denigrate social/behavioral research and its federal support.
Clark Miller
Dec 10, 2010 @ 9:46pm
Of course, while Congress has granted discretion to agency administrators at times, it has also sought ways to constrain that discretion by insisting that administrators justify their choices using reasoned criteria. Thus EPA is required to defend its rule-making with publicly disclosed scientific evidence, a quite nice use of science to impose democratic transparency and constraint on the potentially arbitrary exercise of administrator discretion. Thus, there's nothing particularly undemocratic to a suggestion that NSF be required to disclose and justify its choices of projects, especially if those choices appear on the surface (i.e., by title) to be questionable appropriations of taxpayer dollars. We should definitely see Cantor's shenanigans as a political stunt. But nonetheless there's nothing particularly problematic (as far as democracy is concerned) with suggesting that the public deliberate NSF's funding of science, even at the level of individual projects, so long as the deliberation is robust. Scientists might not be excited about it, of course, but since we're talking about public expenditures, they'd have to persuade the public that they are good stewards of their money.
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