A Skeptical View of the NSF

Tyler and I have a piece in the latest Journal of Economic Perspectives, A Skeptical View of the NSF’s Role in Economic Research. Here is one bit:

In considering the case for grant-based funding of economics research by the National Science Foundation, we find that a number of pertinent questions are rarely asked, let alone clearly answered. Instead, economists often put forward relatively weak arguments that they would likely dismiss if applied to government subsidies not reserved for economists.

For example, one common approach to defending NSF grants for economists is to list the prestigious individuals with whom the program has been associated. In his paper in this journal, Moffitt notes: “The program has supported every Nobel Prize winner in Economics since 1998 and almost every John Bates Clark medal winner since 1961.” (NSF economics funding started in 1960). Indeed, the list of grant recipients from NSF Economics is a literal “Who’s Who” of the top economists over the last half-century. But we don’t find the prestige of NSF recipients to be a good substitute for an estimate of the public benefits of research. Imagine a group of chefs who defended a hypothetical “National Food Foundation” on the grounds that it had provided grants to Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, and every winner of a James Beard Award since 1990. If these names are not familiar, rest assured that their published research output and training of students is very impressive. While we would not consider this information irrelevant (better to fund good chefs than bad ones), as economists we would be unimpressed by this case for government funding of chefs. Talk of how these grants brought about innovations in the culinary arts—such as sous vide, molecular gastronomy, and the introduction of quinoa to the American diet—would also not swing the argument. Instead, as economists, we would focus on how food markets would have operated without such grants and what else might have been done with the money.

We are not against any role for the NSF, however, but instead suggest that funds would be better spent on replication, public-use datasets and “far-out”, high-risk research. We also suggest other funding mechanisms such as prizes.

Here is one bit on replication:

Instead of pointing to the prestigious economists whose research they have funded, perhaps the NSF might point to the prestigious research that has been convincingly replicated—or not replicated.

Read the whole thing.

By the way, this entire issue of the JEP is excellent with important reviews of the research on charter schools and four papers on motivated reasoning.


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