Return to Government Grants and Scholarships
How would Washington bureaucrats—or Congressmen, for that matter—know which scientist to encourage, particularly in so controversial a field as social science? The safest method is to choose men who have achieved some sort of reputation. Whether their reputation is deserved or not, whether their achievements are valid or not, whether they rose by merit, pull, publicity or accident, are questions which the awarders do not and cannot consider. When personal judgment is inoperative (or forbidden), men’s first concern is not how to choose, but how to justify their choice. This will necessarily prompt committee members, bureaucrats and politicians to gravitate toward “prestigious names.” The result is to help establish those already established—i.e., to entrench the status quo.
The worst part of it is the fact that this method of selection is not confined to the cowardly or the corrupt, that the honest official is obliged to use it. The method is forced on him by the terms of the situation. To pass an informed, independent judgment on the value of every applicant or project in every field of science, an official would have to be a universal scholar. If he consults “experts” in the field, the dilemma remains: either he has to be a scholar who knows which experts to consult—or he has to surrender his judgment to men trained by the very professors he is supposed to judge. The awarding of grants to famous “leaders,” therefore, appears to him as the only fair policy—on the premise that “somebody made them famous, somebody knows, even if I don’t.”
(If the officials attempted to by-pass the “leaders” and give grants to promising beginners, the injustice and irrationality of the situation would be so much worse that most of them have the good sense not to attempt it. If universal scholarship is required to judge the value of the actual in every field, nothing short of omniscience would be required to judge the value of the potential—as various privately sponsored contests to discover future talent, even in limited fields, have amply demonstrated.)
Furthermore, the terms of the situation actually forbid an honest official to use his own judgment. He is supposed to be “impartial” and “fair”—while considering awards in the social sciences. An official who does not have some knowledge and some convictions in this field, has no moral right to be a public official. Yet the kind of “fairness” demanded of him means that he must suspend, ignore or evade his own convictions (these would be challenged as “prejudices” or “censorship”) and proceed to dispose of large sums of public money, with incalculable consequences for the future of the country—without judging the nature of the recipients’ ideas, i.e., without using any judgment whatever.
The awarders may hide behind the notion that, in choosing recognized “leaders,” they are acting “democratically” and rewarding men chosen by the public. But there is no “democracy” in this field. Science and the mind do not work by vote or by consensus. The best-known is not necessarily the best (nor is the least-known, for that matter). Since no rational standards are applicable, the awarders’ method leads to concern with personalities, not ideas; pull, not merit; “prestige,” not truth. The result is: rule by press agents.