The Politicisation of Science Funding in the U.S.

In his 2011 book The Great Stagnation, economist Tyler Cowen argued that economic growth in the U.S. is slowing due to less technological innovation. And he suggested this is because most of the “low-hanging fruit” have already been picked. Other commentators have made similar arguments.

In a new report for the CSPI, researcher Leif Rasmussen puts forward an alternative (or additional) explanation for the decline in technological innovation: science has become politicised.

Scientists, Rasmussen argues, have come under increasing pressure to tailor their research to the agenda of woke activists. (He doesn’t use the term ‘woke’ in his report, but we all know what he’s talking about.)

Rasmussen’s method is very simple. He counted the frequency of various politicized terms (i.e., woke jargon) in the abstracts of successful National Science Foundation research awards between 1990 and 2020.

Specifically, he noted whether each abstract contained at least one of seven terms: ‘equity’, ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’, ‘gender’, ‘marginalize’, ‘underrepresented’ and ‘disparity’. Variants of each term (e.g., ‘inclusive’ or ‘inclusivity’) were included in this.  

Note: the National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency with an annual budget of $8.5 billion (so not exactly pocket change). And it accounts for a quarter of all federal funding of basic research at U.S. colleges.

Rasmussen’s main finding is shown in the chart below, with each line corresponding to a different area of science.

As you can see, the frequency of woke jargon has increased massively in all areas of science. Unsurprisingly, the worst offender is ‘Education & Human Resources’. As of 2020, more than half of all abstracts contain at least one of the seven terms.

By contrast, ‘Mathematics & Physical Sciences’ has seen the smallest increase; though even here, the rise is non-trivial. More than 20% of abstracts now mention ‘equity’, ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ or one of the other terms.

It should be noted that every NSF abstract has a section titled ‘Broader Impacts’, in which the researchers must explain why on earth their research would be of interest to anyone else. The official guidance for this section explicitly mentions the goal of increasing representation of women and minorities:

NSF values the advancement of scientific knowledge and activities that contribute to the achievement of societally relevant outcomes. Such outcomes include, but are not limited to: full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities … development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce

Hence, it’s not necessarily true that every abstract mentioning one of the seven terms corresponds to an ideological research project per se. In a lot of cases, the researchers probably just crammed as much woke jargon as they could in the ‘Broader Impacts’ section, hoping to maximise the chance of success.

‘Our attempt to prove the Riemann hypothesis will encourage more women and minorities to enter the field of mathematics because…’ You get the idea.

Rasmussen’s finding is therefore consistent with two distinct types of politicisation. First, funding agencies may have become politicised. (And in fact, we can already see this in the text quoted above). And second, scientific research itself may have become politicised.

Further research is needed to quantify the scale of each of these types. (I suspect that both are getting worse, or at least have been for the last decade.) Nonetheless, Rasmussen’s report provides valuable insights into a troubling phenomenon, and is worth reading in full.