Research Funding and the Confucian Cycle

Government grants to the politically correct, not the scientific geniuses.

American prosperity owes much to technical research.  As technology increased agricultural productivity, fewer and fewer farmers were needed to feed our population.  As people were able to move off the farm, labor was available for occupations such as manufacturing automobiles, developing passenger aircraft, writing computer software, and other productive activities.

The surge of agricultural productivity was fueled by land-grant colleges.  After the Louisiana Purchase, the US government owned more land than the entire area of the United States before the purchase.

The bureaucrats in charge of managing the land decided to give large tracts to colleges which were charged with learning new techniques for farming the land and teaching the results to students.  Generations of faculty and students discovered and taught improved techniques, leading to the highest per-farmer agricultural productivity in the world.

When the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, there was a surge of interest in science and engineering to counter the "Soviet threat."  In 1961, President Kennedy told NASA to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade.  That was a crisp, easily understood mission statement, and that was exactly what NASA did.

NASA had to develop a great many new technologies such as pumps for moving hydrogen, computers which could fly Saturn rockets, medical sensors to make sure the astronauts were not being over-stressed, and too many others to list.  Research topics were selected on a very simple criterion - if the research would help get to the moon, it was funded, if it wouldn't, it wasn't funded.  Most of the economic prosperity which resulted from the development of computers and software has its roots in the Apollo project.

NASA research wasn't undertaken for the sake of doing research, it was goal-directed.  NASA funded computer research in order to help get to the moon, it wasn't trying to found a new industry.  The fact that NASA-funded research led to our massive Information Technology industry was a fortuitous accident.

As the Apollo project wound down, people realized the immense economic benefit of the research that had been funded to further the Apollo project.  The National Science Foundation (NSF) was funded to promote research that would lead to future economic growth.

People thought that it would be difficult for businesses to fund research because research takes a long time to pay off.  This denies the long history of inventions such as the transistor, fiber optics, mainframe computers, and operating systems such as Linux and Windows being funded privately and assumes that government has to step in in order to promote technical progress.

The difficulty is always deciding which new ideas to fund.  Historically, most new ideas won't work.  The only difference between a genius and a crackpot is that in hindsight, the genius turns out to have been right; nobody can tell up front.

The NSF has been given more and more money nearly every year since it was founded.  In the past, the NSF decided which projects to fund based on a system of peer review.  We've discussed some of the problems with peer review.

For all its problems, peer review at least tries to fund ideas based on their technological potential.  This article discusses a new departure in the NSF funding process which abandons any thought of funding ideas based on technological merit and funds ideas based on the gender of the person requesting the funds.

Gender-Based Grantsmanship

An article "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?" published in the American explains what's going on:

Women now earn 57 percent of bachelors degrees and 59 percent of masters degrees. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.D.'s awarded to U.S. citizens went to women. Women earn more Ph.D.'s than men in the humanities, social sciences, education, and life sciences. Women now serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and other leading research universities. But elsewhere, the figures are different. Women comprise just 19 percent of tenure-track professors in math, 11 percent in physics, 10 percent in computer science, and 10 percent in electrical engineering. And the pipeline does not promise statistical parity any time soon: women are now earning 24 percent of the Ph.D.'s in the physical sciences-way up from the 4 percent of the 1960s, but still far behind the rate they are winning doctorates in other fields. "The change is glacial," says Debra Rolison, a physical chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory.

On October 17, 2007, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology convened to learn why women are "underrepresented" in academic professorships of science and engineering and to consider what the federal government should do about it.

During the past 30 years, the humanities have been politicized and transformed beyond recognition. The sci­ences, however, have been spared. There seems to have been a tacit agreement, especially at the large research universities; radical activ­ists and deconstructionists were left relatively free to experiment with fields like comparative literature, cultural anthropology, communica­tions, and, of course, women's studies, while the hard sciences-vital to our economy, health, and security, and to university funding from the federal government, corporations, and the wealthy entrepreneurs among their alumni-were to be left alone.

The article explains how the Title IX regulations about equality of funding of sports teams resulted in many colleges canceling men's sports programs when they weren't able to find enough women who were interested in the sport.  Since colleges would lose federal funding unless they had proportional participation of both men and women, if they couldn't find interested women, the men's team had to be shut down.

Activists are agitating to have Title IX applied to research funding as well as to sports; the NSF is responding to an opportunity to find a new mission:

Already, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is administering a multimillion-dollar gender-equity program called ADVANCE, which ... aims to transform the culture of American science to make it gender-fair. Through ADVANCE, the NSF is attempting to make academic sci­ence departments more cooperative, democratic, and interdisciplinary as well as less obsessive and stressful. And the "Gender Bias Elimination Act," introduced by one of the sub­committee members, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas ... would mandate not only stringent Title IX reviews but also bias-awareness workshops for aca­demics seeking government funding. [emphasis added]

Title IX requires the elimination of men's athletic teams whenever a college can't find enough women athletes; making research departments subject to Title IX reviews will result in less research whenever there are more men than women interested in a particular area of research.

Unfortunately, scientific research isn't like sports.  In sports, men and women don't compete against against each other because their abilities are so different.  The new advocates of "gender-fair" research funding ignore all the recent research which shows that men's and women's brains function in significantly different ways.  Given that their minds work so differently, why should it be any surprise that men and women, taken as groups, have different levels of skill and different levels of interest in the many different areas of scientific endeavor?

It's the Human Condition

Confucius pointed out that government bureaucrats always seek to expand their mission so that they can have bigger budgets and more prestige.  This is normal human behavior; everybody I know would like more money for less work.

The problem with government behaving this way is that there's no mechanism to limit the process.  When a business loses sight of its mission, customers go away and the business goes bankrupt.  When a bureaucracy loses sight of its mission, they ask for more money.  We've commented on the fact that the worse job the CIA does, the bigger their budget.

The NSF was chartered to fund basic scientific research, it was not chartered to extend affirmative action to the sciences.  The bureaucracy is overjoyed to expand their mission to include making research departments "gender-fair."  Bureaucrats who are unable to make scientific judgments because they aren't intelligent enough to distinguish intelligent researchers from wannabees will find jobs evaluating how many researchers are female, how many are disabled, how many are disadvantaged, and so on.

Unfortunately, cutting-edge scientific research is not a cooperative endeavor.  Although the follow-up investigation for new facts to confirm or refute a new idea often requires a scientific team, the original insight that leads to new ideas comes from one mind at a time.

Not only that, true research is highly competitive.  Researchers compete for funding, for assistants to look for facts which support or deny their ideas, and in every other way.

Highly competitive, stressful, meritocratic American research institutions have given us technologies which made our nation the wealthiest in the history of the earth.  By making "research" less competitive and less stressful and insisting that research teams have equal numbers of women regardless of whether women are interested in the particular field, the new egalitarians will destroy the technological goose which has laid so many golden eggs.

That's OK with the bureaucrats because their budget will go up and it will be OK with "scientists" who would not be funded under a more objective, competitive system.  Just as Michelle Obama would always be black and would never be just a student like any other, the real researchers will know each other and will ignore the quota queens, but there'll be a lot less research and a lot fewer new businesses ideas as a result.  Basing scientific funding on gender equality rather than on objective scientific merit is even dumber than forcing our colleges to open overseas branches because we won't let their potential students come to the US, but when has mere stupidity ever stopped a government initiative?

Thus the NSF bureaucracy and the advocates of equality of outcome regardless of merit accelerate our slide into the abyss of the Confucian cycle.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
"government investments are good for the private market" doesn't fly with me. yeah, nasa technology has produced a lot for the private market, but what ELSE could have been done in that same time period. maybe a lot more. the government shoudl stop spending our money and let us invest and spend it how we see fit. then you'd see even far more innovation than nasa ever did. we'd probably have been on mars already.
May 2, 2008 8:34 AM takes the New York Times to task for claiming that girls have the same math abilities that boys have. The article points out that the AVERAGES are about the same, but there are a lot more boys at the top end of the scale than girls and that there are a lot more boys than girls at the bottom end of the scale. It is unarguable that boys and girls differ significantly in math ability; the fact has been demonstrated over and over, but the Times still doesn't get it.
July 29, 2008 9:36 AM

You can see that Science News is in favor of big-spending research programs that won't necessarily go anywhere:

Potato chips: A symptom of the U.S. R&D problem
Last year, U.S. consumers spent $7.1 billion on potato chips - $2 billion more than the federal government's total 2009 investment on research and development. There's something wrong, here, when Americans are more willing to empty their wallets for the junk food that will swell their waistlines than for investments in the engine driving the creation of jobs, economic growth and national security.

What they don't get is that citizens have a right to spend their own money on what they want, not what Science News wants.

September 26, 2010 1:37 PM
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