As Warren points out, people are prepared to pay for social science data. The problem is that the buyers aren’t interested in finding out what is true. They are interested in pushing results that will promote their economic interests.
[A] vigorous market for data exists. Journalists are hungry for “facts” to pepper their reports, lobbyists are eager to promote helpful “facts” and discredit unhelpful “facts” and some in Congress are assembling “facts” to support foregone conclusions … the market is creating an anti-market, in which one study seems to contradict another, leaving policy makers free to ignore all data and making such scholarship not only difficult but useless.
Warren documents how financial interests pushing for changes in bankruptcy reform systematically endeavored to create their own data, through commissioning reports and funding friendly research centers in academic institutions.
In this context, NSF funding for research on major social and political questions can play a crucial role. On the one hand, it provides researchers with alternative sources of funding than the economic interests who would like them to take one side or another on controversial questions. The NSF is in the business of funding researchers who don’t know the answers, but would like to find out what they are, regardless of which interests are discomfited and advantaged. It doesn’t fund research that looks like it wants to support preordained conclusions.
On the other, the existence of NSF-funded data helps keep even special interest-funded research a little more honest than it otherwise would be. The NSF tries to make good quality data publicly available. This makes it tougher for researchers who rely on special interests for continued funding to maintain credibility while using their own proprietary data, which may be skewed subtly or substantially. People are much more likely to ask uncomfortable questions about why they aren’t using the publicly available data, and why they aren’t (as they usually aren’t) prepared to make their own data publicly available.
Warren’s pushback against efforts to stymie NSF funding for the social sciences isn’t a Damascene conversion. It’s the newest round in a fight that she has been waging for decades, and that she apparently began long, long before she ever thought seriously about running for elected office.