Defunding Science: Our Own Damn Fault

kurt_lewin_2

By Ian Tingen

Today, a bit of a nerd rant. Apologies in advance.

For those of you who don’t know my background, I’m a social psychologist. I’m not a couch-beard-notepad kind of psychologist – I’m someone who studies how the environment around a person can impact their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of the world. Anyone who’s a social psychologist today owes a great debt to Kurt Lewin – and given today’s economic climate, maybe we should go back and revisit his words.

In some near-future post, I’ll be sure to describe the origins of social psychology, but for now, it suffices to say that it grew out of people’s need to understand the psychology behind the Nazi regime during World War II. Lewin was one of the founding fathers of our modern science; sometimes even people outside of psychology have heard his quote that “there’s nothing quite so practical as a good theory”. There’s a problem, though. Most of that quote gets left out when we instruct in our graduate seminars and when we talk about it at academic conferences. The full quote is:

“Many psychologists working today in an applied field are keenly aware of the need for close cooperation between theoretical and applied psychology. This can be accomplished… if the theorist does not look toward applied problems with highbrow aversion or with a fear of social problems, and if the applied psychologist realizes that there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” (Lewin, 1944, 1961).

Notice Lewin’s emphasis on both the applied and theoretical halves of scientific inquiry. I bring this up because social scientists of many stripes seem more and more committed to hiding in the laboratory, or otherwise disconnect from phenomena in the real world. This is great, in some ways: thinking purely theoretically is a necessity for the progression of science. But there’s a great drawback, too: the public is much more prone to decide that science funding is an extravagance, rather than a necessity, when hard budget times hit.

Take for example appropriations bill H.R. 933, recently voted on in the Senate, which states:

“Sec. 543. (a) None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

“Promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Think about that for a moment: the Senate, a lay body when it comes to political science study, just voted to do away with ‘non-essential’ research. It’s enough to bring up echoes of Martin Niemoeller.

But I digress: why is social science in such a shocking situation? I think there are two main reasons:

1) We don’t advocate enough for our sciences.

2) We’ve forgotten how to define our relevance to laypeople.

There are a number of reasons that we do these things: the modern academic environment makes advocacy outside of the echo chamber hard, the isolation of academic life tears us away from normal people, there’s not enough time to publish in both academic and popular outlets… the list of excuses can go on forever.

Don’t mistake what I just said: it’s a list of excuses. We, as academics, make time for the things that we find important to us. Maybe now that the impacts of the sequester are starting to hit our comrades in political science, we can start thinking about what we can do to avoid a similar fate. It’s a  shame we have waited this long of our own volition but now is the time to start reaching out. We need to get out of the lab, and into the hearts and minds of our politicians and citizenry. Or, as Kurt Lewin would have said:

“If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.”

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