The Rising Price Of Objectivity

06/16/2017 09:50 am ET

Guest post by Michael Feuer, Dean and Professor of Education Policy, Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University & President of the National Academy of Education.

From the earliest days of the new American republic, the scientific community has been engaged with public policy, and especially in the past century the appetite for research as an input to government decision making has been robust. Commenting on data showing that in just one year alone the expenditures of a handful of think tanks exceeded $2.6 billion, Michael Feuer notes in his new book that “Americans may flirt with stupidity, but they buy knowledge.”

Since the book’s appearance, though, one week after the 2016 presidential election, Feuer’s optimism has confronted a harsh new reality. Pressures to cut federal science budgets, bolstered by the new administration’s remarkable disdain for evidence concerning things like climate change, environmental degradation, and the improvement of education, have made Feuer wish his book wasn’t so timely. It examines changing patterns of public and philanthropic investment in science, and brings attention to the potential combined effects on education research.

According to Feuer’s analysis, demand for credible and objective evidence to guide policy has changed in quantitative and qualitative ways. Federal budgets are under the knife, while the philanthropic community has become more strategic and “edgy” in what kind of research it is willing to fund. To compound the situation, decades of public and private investments have yielded a steadily rising supply of exquisitely qualified researchers eager to contribute to the solution of our toughest social, economic, and education problems. As Feuer shows, the increased supply of researchers vying for a shrinking pie of funding has significantly lowered the odds of getting new federal grants. How these trends in public and private support for science converge, and how they affect the credibility and use of education research, is the key question motivating Feuer’s book.

The Rising Price of Objectivity unpacks the current situation through a review of historical, economic, and psychological forces shaping science policy, and calls for concerted efforts to protect the ideal of research as a contributor to good government. In his presentation, Dean Feuer, whose career has positioned him in the busy and at times hazardous intersection between the research and policy communities, highlighted shifts in philanthropic involvement in education, reviewed the history of federal spending on education and related social science research, and connected these trends to the growth and complexity of our independent and university-based “advice industry.”

Although alarmed by evidence of erosion of respect for scientific knowledge to inform policy – that’s where the notion of “objectivity” comes in – Feuer maintains his belief that smart policy can steer us in the right direction. He proposes a set of policy options, including modest adjustments to the tax code regarding charitable giving, creating a new agency charged with providing Congress balanced and credible syntheses of research, requiring regular public accounting for both public and private research spending, and encouraging the philanthropic and think-tank sectors to double-down on their commitment to the production of credible and objective evidence.

Feuer admits that in an era when “facts are not always facts…” he has had to re-calculate the likelihood that his proposals will be adopted – but also the risks of ignoring the threats they are intended to address.

Dean Michael Feuer’s post is based on his lecture at IEL in May 2017. The AERA/IEL Education Policy Forum, launched in 1983, is a monthly lecture series featuring renowned scholars and practitioners focused on salient issues in education policy. To get on the mailing list for the Washington DC-based series, please email epfp@iel.org.

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