supporting scientific research

It is sad that Senator Tom Coburn is stepping down from the Senate because of ill health, but less sad that he is stepping down. The blend the Tea Party brew is rather weak for Mr Coburn, who believes research should be useful and has firm views of what is useful. ….

Mr Coburn’s greatest ire was reserved for the funding of political science. He believes that people who want to understand politics can watch Fox News – though he conceded that some might prefer to pay attention to CNN and MSNBC. Last year he tagged an amendment to an omnibus bill that blocked grant funding to academic research in this field. ….

Politicians can always win cheap laughs by reading out the titles of research projects they do not understand. In the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, her minister Sir Keith Joseph tried to abolish the then Social Science Research Council but a report commissioned from Victor Rothschild failed to deliver the desired verdict.

Rothschild used the example of research on “kinship and sex roles in a Polish village”, a project description that had provoked much merriment in the UK public accounts committee. A respondent pointed out that the work showed how the inefficiency of fragmented land holdings increasingly tended by ageing women gave rise to economic cost and political tensions. We now know that such tensions grew in Poland in the following decade. And then the Berlin Wall came down. ….

Of course, there is a lot of bad and useless research. But … it is difficult to decide which research is useless or how research will influence our lives. The most immediate practical offshoot of particle physics research had nothing to do with particle physics at all: the worldwide web began as a means of enabling the scientists involved to keep in touch.

John Kay, “Philistines may carp but scientists should reach for the sky“, Financial Times, 19 February 2014. (ungated link)

Thomas Coburn (born 1948) is a Republican Senator from Oklahoma, medical doctor and Southern Baptist deacon. He is a social conservative who opposes gay rights and embryonic stem cell research, and supports term limits, gun rights and the death penalty.  Sir Keith Joseph (1918-1994), a Conservative politician, was influential in creating the political philosophy known as “Thatcherism”.

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