The NSF Trends Toward Woke
The new Lysenkoism has found another target. We’re interested in your contributions to high-energy particle physics, professor, but how can we fund your work in the absence of an analytical framework that foregrounds intersectionality and allyship?
The National Science Foundation was a Cold War baby, proximate to the space race, created in 1950 on the absolutely firm foundational premise that science is to be useful. Tellingly, it was founded under the early leadership of Vannevar Bush, the scientific advisor to FDR who had pushed for the creation of the Manhattan Project — the very model of science as power. President Harry Truman laid out these organizing principles in a 1948 speech that prepared the political ground for the creation of the organization.
“If we are to maintain the leadership in science that is essential to national strength,” Truman told an audience of scientists, “we must vigorously press ahead in research. There is one simple axiom on which this thought is based: The secrets of nature are not our monopoly. Any nation that is willing and able to make the effort can learn the secrets that we have learned. Such a nation may, indeed, discover new facts of nature we have not yet discovered.”
Russian bastards, they’ll get ahead of us in geomorphology!
The NSF’s foundational grounding in practical science has guided the agency ever since. As a federal agency that funds all forms of science outside of medical science — the everything-but-your-body analog of the NIH1 — the NSF still marches behind the premise, as a new strategic plan puts it, that science exists to “benefit society by translating knowledge into solutions.” The current director of the agency, a computer scientist nominated to a six-year term by Donald Trump, has a serious research background. If you dig around through the agency’s news page to see what kinds of research the NSF is funding, you’ll find headlines like, “Researchers find cyclones on Jupiter caused by polar turbulence and convection,” and, “Researchers observe rare fractional state in bilayer graphene for the first time.”
In a sign of new course-setting, the NSF has just started advertising for this position, a job for a manager (with a salary near $200,000) who will help the agency “in the formulation of the directorate’s STEM equity goals, objectives, and priorities”:
Meanwhile, the Geosciences Directorate of the NSF promotes a funding opportunity intended to achieve “Cultural Transformation in the Geoscience Community”:
CTGC aims at engaging institutions that support Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), persons with disabilities, LGBTQIA+, and other individuals from marginalized/ minoritized groups, to help promote career advancement, and advance Earth system science. CTGC builds on tenets of NSF programs like GOLD (Geoscience Opportunities for Leadership in Diversity), ADVANCE and NSF INCLUDES that lead to environments that foster inclusion and belonging. The program will support projects that are based on geoscience education scholarship, mentorship, allyship, equity, anti-racist and anti-harassment practices, and increasing accessibility.
If you do anti-racist geoscience, ally, you’ve got a check coming.
Here’s another funding program, mentioned in that last link, that will have a significant role in the development of junior faculty:
All NSF ADVANCE proposals are expected to use intersectional approaches in the design of systemic change strategies in recognition that gender, race and ethnicity do not exist in isolation from each other and from other categories of social identity.
Here’s a series of NSF webinars, “Leading Cultural Change Through Professional Societies of Biology.”
Here’s an NSF funding opportunity that offers support to “principal investigators who share NSF's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
The result of this kind of focus on funding is that the agency that pays for research on rare fractional states in bilayer graphene now funds projects that, for example, build a diversity, equity, and inclusion gaming app for engineering faculty.
Funding for science is political, and the NSF was born on political premises. But this is a new kind of politics for a federal agency that has always focused on the advancement of a practical understanding of natural systems. An academic scientist with a long history of NSF funding told me recently that the agency’s new course is a recent development: “I had not seen any of this CRT-woke language before the Biden administration.”
It will, he says, re-direct the science being done at American research universities: “Principal investigators tend to be smart, and they quickly realize what’s expected in the new-normal ‘broader impacts’ portion of projects, even those outside of these new CRT-woke programs… NSF and academia are closely linked. Perhaps there’s still science being done, but the word’s out that DEI is now the target everyone needs to hit.”
Behind the reasonable goal of making sure the door is open to anyone who can do the work, the Woke pivot at the NSF begins to sound like the bizarrely anti-feminist headpatting of “Did you know that women can be scientists, too?” See, for example, this remarkably condescending piece of news on the NSF website, “If she can see it, then she can be it — An exhibit highlighting female role models in STEM.” Women can become scientists…if the NSF shows them that they can. Good thing they mentioned it!
It’s everywhere, and now it’s here, too.