Friday, September 14, 2007

Russ Poter's Lament

By Richard Vedder

From time to time, I get private comments on blogs or articles I have written, or radio or TV interviews I have done. A week ago, Russ Poter forwarded me a thoughtful and interesting epistle. I had complained about Ph.D. programs and raised questions about the effectiveness of much so-called university research.

Mr. Poter implied that much social science, education, etc., research is probably of dubious value. Implicitly, he made the important distinction between research in the hard sciences designed to improve our knowledge of the physical and biological world we live in, and research in the soft sciences, which often is harder to conduct because of non-laboratory conditions and where political agendas and normative perspectives often dominate objective searches for the truth.

I think this is a valuable distinction. If I were czar, I think I might eliminate social science grants by the National Science Foundation and use the savings to help fund permanent tax relief to long suffering taxpayers who most universities look at as ignorant cash cows whose major function in life is to provide them more funds. To be sure, some social science research reveals interesting things. I am reading a fascinating short account of Western economic history since 1200, A Farewell to Alms by economic historian Gregory Clark of Cal Davis. He has all sorts of interesting charts and speculations that help us get a good grasp of the answer to the question "where did we come from economically?" Or, why did we succeed economically to increase incomes and output after 1800 in the West when others had failed before then, and many have continued to fail since? And this research was NSF financed. Nonetheless, I know of a lot of research costing tons of money that made trivial additions to our knowledge. And I suspect a good deal of the research would have been done anyway if the NSF had not funded it.

Mr. Poter raises the issue of the growth of this type funding in the Clinton years and thinks Mr. Clinton should speak up and explain why it was done and what the benefits are. I prefer to ask the broader question: Why is the federal government funding this research at all?

I am not anti-research, not anti-social science research. Au contraire, I have several books and a couple hundred papers in social science (mostly economics, but occasionally overlapping into other disciplines) out there, and in the Medicare portion of my life I am writing one book and negotiating another. Research is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient in economic and cultural progress. I particularly deplore the lack of good research on what types of instructional delivery are effective in higher education. But I also think a lot of research is being done for the wrong reasons -- to get young persons tenure because of a "publish or perish" attitude which makes job security an issue, or in order to get summer stipend money to allow the family the ability to take a European vacation. There is a lot of rent-seeking, and a lot of second rate scholars doing third rate research on fourth rate topics of fifth rate interest to the broader world. (My favorite today: an article in a prestigious economics journal by two professors at top universities -- Stanford and Cal Tech -- on "The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success" that suggests I have been the victim of alphabetic discrimination).

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