What Does Half-a-Million in Science Grants Buy You?

May 5, 2013 at 12:57 pm

An academic paper funded by two National Science Foundation grants bears no relation to the intended purpose of that money.

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In 2009, the US National Science Foundation awarded an “engineering education research” grant of $150,000 to Eric Pappas, a professor at James Madison University.

According to the official record, that money had a purpose. It was supposed to:

  • “integrate instruction in sustainability into design courses across three years of the undergraduate engineering curriculum”
  • “provide hands-on learning experiences that develop students’ abilities to deal with sustainability”
  • and “better prepare students for the practice of engineering through developing their understanding of environmental sustainability”

In 2012, Pappas became the primary recipient of another National Science Foundation grant. So far it has paid out $431,200. It isn’t due to expire until 2015, and the names of five colleagues are associated with it. It’s therefore unclear what the final amount will be – and how much of the money will be used by Pappas personally.

In any event, the public record for this second grant tells us that these funds are also tied to certain expectations. Pappas is supposed to:

  • “study and assess ways in which sustainability instruction in five contexts can be integrated into existing material in engineering, science, social science, education, and the humanities”
  • provide “engineering students a comprehensive understanding for solving sustainability problems”
  • “create a personalized instructional approach”
  • develop “a low-cost global model for sustainability research, instruction, and assessment”
  • and “provide an inexpensive, scalable, and transferable model for integrating systems and cross-disciplinary instruction…into an engineering course or curriculum.”

Earlier this year, a paper Pappas wrote courtesy of these grants (both are cited at the end of it) appeared in the Journal of Sustainability Education – which describes itself as a peer-reviewed publication.

The PDF version of the paper may be downloaded here. It runs to 27 pages and is titled Radical Premises in Sustainability Reform.

I challenge anyone to find a single sentence in that text that relates in any way to any of the eight bullet points listed above.

For starters, the words “student” and “curriculum” simply don’t appear, while “engineering” comes up only once – in a general discussion (p. 3). Similarly, the word “education” is barely mentioned – on three occasions it’s included in a list in passing (pp. 3, 4, 16), in another instance there’s a reference to the overall size of the US education budget (p. 10).

This means that, after cashing cheques approaching $600,000 from the National Science Foundation, Pappas has produced a paper that has virtually no connection to the reasons he was given that money.

To describe these 27 pages as ‘embarrassing’ is being charitable. They are an example of misanthropic green analysis at its most banal.

Here is the first sentence: “We are a civilization in decline.” And the last one: “We will be held accountable for our own behavior.”

In between we find gems such as these:

  • “we are in denial abut our future, and we need to stop ‘idolizing the future’” (p. 2)
  • “our faith in technology has reached religious proportions” (p. 16, italics in original)
  • “This paper is not the author venting frustrations…it is an appeal to human conscience and action on the most primal level: survival.” (p. 2, ellipsis in original)
  • “We are the problem…We are own own worst enemy…our largely narcissistic behaviours” (p. 2)
  • “we have reached the limits of growth” (p. 4)
  • “We are literally eating ourselves to death” (p. 9)
  • “our increasingly dire global situation” (p. 14)
  • “our selfish behavior” (p. 15)
  • “we are in imminent danger of drowning” (p. 15)
  • “the destruction of our own habitat” (p. 16)

The following statement, though – the part in bold – may be my personal favourite:

Without the hoped for massive and immediate transformation, or any significant indication that such a change is imminent or in progress, we have become subject to evolution, that we may simply have been “wired” to evolve out of existence (It has been suggested that the human brain, still biologically prehistoric, cannot process the ethical complexities of advanced technology). [p. 5, bold added]

On page three, Pappas says “the central purpose of this paper is to make the reader uncomfortable.” Mission accomplished.

This is what passes for peer-reviewed academic literature in the 21st century. This is what professors who have been awarded more than half a million in National Science Foundation funding give back to society in exchange.

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hat tip to Tom Nelson

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