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The ‘Broader Impacts’ of Sequestration on Science

SOURCE: BigStockPhoto/ Spending Cuts

Now that we’ve been driven off the “fiscal cliff,” perhaps we should look around and assess the results. It turns out that sequestration is raising interesting questions about the relation between science and ethics—in particular, on whether the pursuit of scientific knowledge can ever be usefully separated from the question of larger societal concerns.
Take one impact of sequestration, for example: the suspension of all education and public outreach, or EPO, activities conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration:

Effective immediately, all education and public outreach activities should be suspended, pending further review. In terms of scope, this includes all public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the Agency, including all education and public outreach efforts conducted by programs and projects.

The scope comprises activities intended to communicate, connect with, and engage a wide and diverse set of audiences to raise awareness and involvement in NASA, its goals, missions and programs, and to develop an appreciation for, exposure to, and involvement in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math]. [The full notice can be read here.]

The idea seems to be: Protect the real work of NASA by cutting the useful, albeit peripheral tasks such as “permanent and traveling exhibits … speeches, presentations, and appearances, with the exception of technical presentations by researchers at scientific and technical symposia.” EPO activities can be reestablished after funding is restored.

But how well does this distinction between science and outreach hold up? Consider two of NASA’s most high-profile projects. The Mars rover “Curiosity” has been exploring the red planet since last August. NASA’s page on Curiosity lists its top five scientific and engineering achievements to date. In particular, two of them are finding an ancient streambed and drilling into a Martian rock.

What are these scientific and engineering achievements? According to NASA, the ancient streambed “suggests that at least some parts of Mars may have been habitable billions of years ago.” As for the drilling, “the gray powder it drilled out” suggests that “the rover’s landing site could have supported microbial life billions of years ago.”

Neat news! But is the discovery of habitable conditions—or the existence of life itself—solely a scientific fact? Doesn’t it simultaneously count as a social, political, cultural, and religious fact? Is it really possible to place such discoveries into only the “scientific and technical” category?

Again, consider the case of what is perhaps the most prominent NASA project of the past 20 years: the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble has offered an endless stream of pictures and data since its delivery into orbit by the space shuttle in 1990. NASA argues that in the early stages of the Hubble, one of its key scientific objectives was identified as “a study of the nearby intergalactic medium using quasar absorption lines to determine the properties of the intergalactic medium and the gaseous content of galaxies and groups of galaxies.”

Pretty impressive—and also pretty impressively technical. Pursuing this question, results from the Hubble Space Telescope have taught us that we do not live in an “island universe,” but rather galaxies are tied together in a grand interstellar web, with streams of gases crossing the intergalactic medium. But again, are these solely scientific facts? Or is the science inextricably bound with philosophical and religious motives tied to our desire to understand where we have come from and what our destiny is?

These issues point toward the difficulty of separating the intellectual merit from the broader impacts of science. The underlying motives behind NASA are political—such as national pride—as well as cultural and philosophical in nature. In terms of the rover Curiosity, think of the response if life was discovered on Mars.

The science and engineering involved are the means to those ends: Without the larger vision, there would be no need for NASA science and engineering. The results are interdisciplinary as well; after all, scientists seek significant findings—ones that make a difference to people. So why would NASA cut off the EPO activities when those were precisely the point of the missions and also of NASA itself?

Public science is built upon the claim that its work is separate from politics. And that’s true, if we mean that science must be based on rational beliefs grounded in the best available evidence.

But in another sense, science is political: It is always motivated by the needs and values of the community. Even the vaunted motivation of “curiosity-driven” research is really just another way of expressing what Aristotle called the pure desire to know.

Now, NASA could reply that if there are going to be future EPO activities, then there will need to be scientific findings to report, and that this justifies prioritizing the scientific research. But it is also true that without public support, NASA does not get to conduct any science at all. And EPO activities are the means for bringing these discoveries to the public’s attention.

This same conceptual conundrum—whether politics is writ large inside or outside of science—has vexed the National Science Foundation, or NSF, for the past 15 years. In 1997 NSF changed the criteria for reviewing proposals to include “broader impacts” as well as “intellectual merit.” Since then it has struggled to find a proper balance between the two concepts. But as my colleague Britt Holbrook and I argued some years ago, the very distinction between intellectual merit and broader impacts seems questionable. Rather than seeing these as different types of interest, it is better to see them as one interest that differs with different types of audience. Disciplinary—such as scientists—and nondisciplinary—such as the public—audiences have different interests, but in both cases their interests mix intellectual merit and broader impact.

NSF continues to refine its thinking on these matters: It issued new requirements for grant proposals just this past January. Evaluation of broader-impacts activities, using especially well-established means of evaluation, will now be even more integrated into the grant-proposal-review process. Most of those well-established means of evaluation focus on EPO activities. But NASA’s conundrum raises the question of whether such disciplinary approaches to evaluation can work anymore at all, or whether we need to move toward explicit interdisciplinary criteria and review panelists.

Consider the following scenario: the NSF—or NASA—convenes its next review panel. Instead of a peer-review board consisting entirely of scientists, the panel consists of six members: three scientists, one philosopher, one education expert, and one citizen. The panel must come to an agreement about what to fund; that is, how to spend the public’s money. The scientists are free to make any type of argument they wish to convince the nonscientists, for example, that the research would answer critical and crosscutting questions. The only requirement is that there must be a clear consensus—not necessarily unanimity—on the project.

I suspect that such a suggestion will be greeted with horror in some quarters. But this is where the conversation about broader impacts is heading—as I believe it should. Today Congress and society demand greater accountability for public expenditures. I see this as a way to acknowledge this impulse, while keeping the drive for accountability from turning into a straightjacket that limits the reach of science.

Robert Frodeman is professor of philosophy and director of the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity at the University of North Texas.

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