Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

Building knowledge, training new scientists, sharing a world.

Fear of scientific knowledge about firearm-related injuries.


In the United States, a significant amount of scientific research is funded through governmental agencies, using public money. Presumably, this is not primarily aimed at keeping scientists employed and off the streets*, but rather is driven by a recognition that reliable knowledge about how various bits of our world work can be helpful to us (individually and collectively) in achieving particular goals and solving particular problems.

Among other things, this suggests a willingness to put the scientific knowledge to use once it's built.** If we learn some relevant details about the workings of the world, taking those into account as we figure out how best to achieve our goals or solve our problems seems like a reasonable thing to do -- especially if we've made a financial investment in discovering those relevant details.

And yet, some of the "strings" attached to federally funded research suggest that the legislators involved in approving funding for research are less than enthusiastic to see our best scientific knowledge put to use in crafting policy -- or, that they would prefer that the relevant scientific knowledge not be built or communicated at all.

A case in point, which has been very much on my mind for the last month, is the way language in appropriations bills has restricted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funds for research related to firearms.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab organized a joint letter (PDF) to the gun violence task force being headed by Vice President Joe Biden, signed by 108 researchers and scholars, which is very clear in laying out the impediments that have been put on research about the effects of guns. They identify the crucial language, which is still present in subsection c of section 503 and 218 of FY2013 Appropriations Act governing NIH and CDC funding:

None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.

As the letter from the Crime Lab rightly notes,

Federal scientific funds should not be used to advance ideological agendas on any topic. Yet that legislative language has the effect of discouraging the funding of well-crafted scientific studies.

What is the level of this discouragement? The letter presents a table comparing major NIH research awards connected to a handful of conditions between 1973 and 2012, noting the number of reported cases of these conditions in the U.S. during this time period alongside the number of grants to study the condition. There were 212 NIH research awards to study cholera and 400 reported U.S. cases of cholera. There were 56 NIH research awards to study diphtheria and 1337 reported U.S. cases of diphtheria. There were 129 NIH research awards to study polio and 266 reported U.S. cases of polio. There were 89 NIH research awards to study rabies and 65 reported U.S. cases of rabies. But, for more than 4 million reported firearm injuries in the U.S. during this time period, there were exactly 3 NIH research awards to study firearm injuries.

One possibility here is that, from 1973 to 2012, there were very few researchers interested enough in firearm injuries to propose well-crafted scientific studies of them. I suspect that that the 108 signatories of the letter linked above would disagree with that explanation for this disparity in research funding.

Another possibility is that legislators want to prevent the relevant scientific knowledge from being built. The fact that they have imposed restrictions on the collection and sharing of data by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (in particular, data tracing illegal sales and purchases of firearms) strongly supports the hypothesis that, at least when it comes to firearms, legislators would rather be able to make policy unencumbered by pesky facts about how the relevant pieces of the world actually work.

What this suggests to me is that these legislators either don't understand that knowing more about how the world works can help you achieve desired outcomes in that world, or that they don't want to achieve the outcome of reducing firearm injury or death.

Perhaps these legislators don't want researchers to build reliable knowledge about the causes of firearm injury because they fear it will get in the way of their achieving some other goal that is more important to them than reducing firearm injury or death.

Perhaps they fear that careful scientific research will turn up facts which themselves seem to "to advocate or promote gun control" -- at least to the extent that they show that the most effective way to reduce firearm injury and death would be to implement controls that the legislators view as politically unpalatable.

If nothing else, I find that a legislator's aversion to scientific evidence is a useful piece of information about him or her to me, as a voter.


*If federal funding for research did function like a subsidy, meant to keep the researchers employed and out of trouble, you'd expect to see a much higher level of support for philosophical research. History suggests that philosophers in the public square with nothing else to keep them busy end up asking people lots of annoying questions, undermining the authority of institutions, corrupting the youth, and so forth.

**One of the challenges in getting the public on board to fund scientific research is that they can be quite skeptical that "basic research" will have any useful application beyond satisfying researchers' curiosity.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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