Friday, December 2, 2016

How much of the NSF funded “fundamental” scientific educational research is really fundamental?

(An updated version of this post is available at
The other day I received an email from the NSF:

For example, the very first project at the top of the first page “Transitioning Learners to Calculus in Community Colleges” aims at “Improving student outcomes in mathematics courses in community colleges”. The main vehicle of the project is improving instructions by utilizing various instruments (mostly surveys, and self-assessments). Is this an important social project? Of course! Does it represent a fundamental scientific research? Of course not!
Here are the active links shown in the picture:
The webpage tells you that (in part):
The new awards fund projects aimed at generating foundational knowledge in:
·       Improving and advancing STEM learning and learning environments for students, parents, teachers and the general population in all settings, from formal and informal education to technological learning environments.
·       Supporting and preparing a STEM professional workforce that is ready to capitalize on unprecedented advances in technology and science and address current and future global, social and economic challenges.
·       Diversifying and increasing participation in STEM, effectively building institutional capacity and informal learning environments that foster the untapped potential of underrepresented groups in STEM fields.
The brief reading of the bullets already raises a question – do the goals really represent the search for a fundamental scientific knowledge, or they rather aim at improving immediate social issues education system currently deals with?
The following link
leads to “the complete list of ECR projects and their abstracts” (the picture shows page 1). 

The total number of projects funded within $61 million is 114. However, only 3 projects from 114 really fall in a category “fundamental scientific research”. Those three truly fundamental scientific projects are related to a neurology of thinking; they study various connections between process of thinking and processes happening in a brain while thinking. The total amount of funding set aside for those projects is #2,242,982, which is equal to 3.7 % of the total funds.
It means that 96.3 % of the funds are being used for projects of another kind (do not belong to a fundamental scientific research).
If one just reads the titles of the projects one can find several more projects which also may be sought as a part of a fundamental scientific research, but that would require the detailed analysis of the projects.
If the NSF would ask me to do such an analysis, I could, but I doubt that the NSF would.
A brief reading of the project titles and some of the abstracts shows that the majority of the projects are of a social nature; they aim at improving a current social situation by solving a specific immediate social problem within the field of education.
No doubt, some of those socially oriented projects are fundamentally important for making education better, more successful, more student oriented, more diverse.
But they would not help much to advance a science of education.
The classification of socially oriented projects as a part of a fundamental scientific research is a very common practice; and it is based on a common misconception of what a science is.
There is a wide-spread opinion (also held by many people in the field of education) that:
1) when a person poses a question, and
2) then describes some steps which would lead to the answer to this questions, and
3) then describes how he or she would assess if the question was answered correctly
– that person conducts a scientific research.
In reality, this procedure is most commonly used for achieving a specific social goal.
This procedure is used when a person feels some disconnection between his or her social position and the position the person desires to have. This procedure has been an object of a study of a General Theory of Human Activity (a.k.a. Activity Theory), which has several different forms, or academic schools, including the one used in the field of a teacher professional development.
Not any possible question (a.k.a. a proposition which starts from “Is it true that …”) should be called a hypothesis, and not any possible activity which leads to an answer should be called a research.
In general, there are three kinds of human practices/projects with the goal of advancing human life: (a) scientific research - the goal of a scientific research is discovering new knowledge; (b) engineering and art - the goal of an engineering development is building new devices (and systems of devices), the goal of art is bringing/developing artifacts of art; (c) social advancement - the goal of a social advancement project is developing or adopting new collective practice(s) (new - for the given social group, but may have been used already by other people).
Clearly, every practice has some elements of a scientific research: when we start a project, we generally have some understanding of what we want to achieve and how we want to achieve that (“a hypothesis”), and how will we assess (measure) how close we are to the goal (“facts”).
The difference between a scientific research and a social project is in “what utilizes what”.
In a scientific research, some social activity is being used as a vehicle to obtain new knowledge. In that case, some advancement in some social practice represents a “collateral” result of the research.
In a social project, some scientific knowledge is being used to achieve positive changes in a certain social situation. In this case, some newly recorded knowledge represents a “collateral” result of the project.
There are many things in the world which are similar on the outside but very different on the inside, or by their functions, goals, properties. For example, a space shuttle and a fighter jet look very similar, but only one can fly in the outer world (a space shuttle). The difference between a scientific research and a social project is similar to the difference between an archeological excavation and a dig for a treasure chest: they both use some digging, but the goals and the results are very different.
The majority of the 114 projects funded by the NSF aim at the achievement of some positive social changes in a certain educational environment.  
And many more projects sound like this one. If we strip off all the scientific language, we will read – paraphrasing –
1) “We want our students to do better. For that we plan on trying this.” – if the project mostly involves faculty or teachers who directly teach students.
2) “We want our school teachers to teach better. For that we plan on trying this.” – if the project mostly involves faculty from a school of education.
I don’t’ claim that all projects are fall into the two described categories, but most of them do.
One might ask, what harm is in calling social projects as scientific ones? Both kinds are important and do good for education.
A short answer is: it is bad because it makes an impression of a huge amount of a scientific research happening in the field of education; when in fact a true scientific research in the field of education does not exceed 3 – 5 % of the total funding (if we want to promote a science of education to a true science we need to change that).
The bigger problem is that unwillingly “the NSF essentially forces people into faking doing science. The core of any science is being truthful about everything; including goals, methods, types of actions being used to achieve the goals. If people assume that faking science is fine – even for the sake of achieving positive social changes – that will water down the essence of science.
It is a scientific fact that both, the Religion and the Government, have benefited from the separation of Church and State. Similarly, the separation of programs for social advancement from programs for scientific advancement will be beneficial for both, social and scientific advancement.
Not enforcing such a separation makes the way the NSF funds of some of educational projects to be wrong”.
The last quote has been taken from a recent essay, which offers a broader discussion.
Another recent essay offers a discussion on what should the fundamental research in the field of education be about. The central premise of the approach for marking a research as “fundamental” is based on the facts, that
1) For every child, there is a finite number of individual characteristics describing his or her learning, behavioral, and social styles.
2) There is a finite number of subjects to learn, and within each subject there is a finite volume of knowledge to learn, and a finite number of skills to master.
Hence, it should take a finite amount of time to study all relevant and sustainable correlations (a.k.a. laws). 
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