How to Save the Social Sciences

Peter Wood

  • Article
  • June 13, 2011

The federal government is in the midst of a budget crisis. For every dollar it spends, it must borrow 45 cents. It has reached the limit of its borrowing authority and a large bi-artisan majority in the House of Representatives has just voted down the idea of increasing the debt ceiling without also instituting substantial cuts to the federal budget.

In this context, the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a public hearing last week to take testimony on whether and how one small corner of the federal budget might be trimmed. The hearing, titled “Social, Behavioral, and Economic Science Research: Oversight of the Need for Federal Investments and Priorities for Funding,” was apparently prompted by some Congressmen who took skeptical note of a few of the projects in the social sciences recently funded by the National Science Foundation.

I was called by a committee staff member about 10 days before the hearing and asked if I would be willing to testify. I said yes. I had never attended a Congressional hearing before, let alone served as a witness, and was not at all clear what would happen. The main thing was to prepare written testimony “of any reasonable length,” submit 55 hard copies of it 48 hours in advance, and then be prepared to make a five-minute oral presentation.

There were three other witnesses: Dr. Myron Gutmann, a historian who now heads the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate at the NSF; Professor Hillary Anger Elfenbein, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis; and Ms. Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an economist who is director of the Center for Employment Policy at the Hudson Institute. The meeting was chaired by Congressman Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) and the ranking member was Daniel Lipinski (D-Illinois). Seven other Congressmen were present at one point or another. Some came in late; some left early; some did both. Testifying to the committee was a bit like talking to a carousel. Someone was always rising to leave as someone else was sinking into his chair.

Which is not to say that the hearing lacked gravity. A serious question was on the table and an even more serious situation surrounded the whole issue. Dr. Guttman mounted a vigorous defense of the NSF’s spending in the social, behavioral, and economics sciences (“SBE sciences” in the shorthand of the day). His point was mainly utilitarian in character:  There are large practical benefits that flow to the American people from their “investment” in NSF-funded SBE research. (I have not seen his written testimony and was too preoccupied with organizing my own thoughts to register many of the details.)

Professor Elfenbein does NSF-funded research on the facial expression of emotions. The Army has taken an active interest in her work as a possible aid for soldiers who must learn to read the faces of people they meet at checkpoints or on patrols in hostile regions. Her work thus stands as an instance of NSF-research that started out as fairly removed from practical concerns but proved highly useful. In her five minutes of testimony, she provided a compelling account of how that happened.

I spoke next. I support NSF-funded social-science research, as I am sure most members of the National Association of Scholars also do. But we also recognize the dire situation facing the country and the obligation for shared sacrifice. In my view, it is inevitable that NSF funding for SBE research is going to be reduced and that the crucial task is figure out how to do this in a manner that causes the least harm to the most important programs. The NSF does (unfortunately) fund some trivialities, but not many, and even if all of them were banished, the cuts will probably go further. To that end, I suggested to the committee six principles that could help guide its actions. (In fact, though I had six in my written testimony, I had time to speak to only four.)

1.    Pay attention to non-governmental sources of funding. Some areas of research already attract substantial financial support from international agencies, foundations, private-donors, and for-profit enterprises. Scholars who work in the areas could, if faced with a decline in funding through the NSF, potentially find substitute sources of support.

2.    Pay attention to the oversupply of SBE Ph.D.’s in the labor force. Each year our universities award advanced degrees to many more people in these fields than there are opportunities for employment that require such credentials. One result of the surplus is that colleges and universities rely more and more on adjunct faculty members, part-timers who are typically paid extraordinarily low wages and whose relationship with students is transitory and transactional. The NSF contributes to this problem by supporting graduate students in SBE fields through its graduate fellowships, and again in grants to support the writing of Ph.D. dissertations. I would by no means recommend cutting these entirely, but it is clear that NSF currently incentivizes people to pursue careers in fields in which there are meager opportunities.

3.     Pay attention to the rise of anti-scientific ideologies within SBE disciplines. In my field of anthropology, for example, the recent controversy over the attempt by the Executive Board of American Anthropological Association to jettison “science” from the AAA’s mission statement is a pertinent example. Should NSF fund “social science” research in fields that reject the paradigm of scientific investigation?

4.    Cut funding wherever NSF uses it to advance non-science agendas. The purpose of NSF is to advance science, not one or another person’s views of social justice. This probably means de-funding programs that support “transforming education” and “ethics.” These may be worthy endeavors in some ways, but they are not scientific endeavors. They are, fairly openly, political undertakings.

5.    Beware funding for projects that slip too easily into contemporary policy debates. The projects need not be carrying a political ballast to fall into the realm of questionable places for the taxpayer to invest resources. The problem is that social-science research all too easily gets dazzled by the prospect of practical application and researchers find themselves drawn to take sides in policy debates. Do we want social science that helps us hack through the thickets of data to clarify complicated social problems? I think we do—and the place for that research is in policy-oriented think tanks, commissions, and programs set up for specific purposes. An agency created to fund basic science is the wrong place through which to fund work that aims to contribute to public policy discourse.

6.    Consider the larger picture of the changing nature of American higher education. Research is less and less the center of the overall enterprise. Postsecondary education’s  growth areas are community colleges and online institutions that have no commitment to research.   Even undergraduate students at four-yea institutions that have traditionally had research commitments are steadily migrating to fields such as business, health, communication, and education, where the  research component is thin.  The nation’s emphasis on university-based research in all of the sciences may be ripe for recalibration. Congress should be mostly concerned with maintaining the vital core of SBE research.

Ms. Diana Furchtgott-Roth spoke next and had a much simpler recommendation: Funding for SBE sciences in the NSF should be eliminated entirely. She pointed out that the foundational work in these fields was accomplished almost entirely without government financing, and that important contemporary work could, should, and would be supported by private foundations and industry.

The transcript of the hearing and the written statements will find their way into the Congressional Record. I don’t suppose that will have any great bearing on things in the long run. The exercise of holding a Congressional hearing, however, means something. This one drew an audience of perhaps 50 people, many of them representing groups that have some vested interest in NSF-funded programs. They couldn’t have been very pleased with Ms. Furchtgott-Roth’s statement, but then her views are probably self-negating. I don’t think Congress will zero out SBE funding. My statements may have been more displeasing to the audience because they inhabit the realm of the plausible.

Dr. Gutmann, under some tough questioning by Congressman Andrew Harris (R-Maryland), refused to concede that there were any areas in which the SBE currently proposed budget is excessive. Dr. Harris  (he’s a physician) asked how, under the country’s present circumstances, the NSF could ask for a 25-percent increase in funding for SBE sciences, including a whopping 174-percent increase (to $56.98 million) for “Education for Sustainability?” Dr. Gutmann disputed the figures, saying the overall increase was “only” 15 to 18 percent. He also explained the “Education for Sustainabilty” expenses as part of the basic research to advance the nation’s energy independence. Congressman Harris asked that if that were so, why wasn’t it part of the Department of Energy’s budget?

Near the end of the hearing, Chairman Brooks laid down a stern warning and asked a final question. The warning was that cuts were definitely coming and that the typical response, “My area is too important to cut,” would not suffice. Knowing that cuts would have to come, what would each of us recommend as priorities? Ms. Furchtgott-Roth stayed on message: Cut it all. Professor Elfenbein deferred to Dr. Gutmann, who essentially said, cut nothing.

My advice? Cut that $57-million sustainability-education program. It appears to be nothing but ideology dressed up to look like basic science.

Cut funding for economics. Alternative funding for research in economics is abundant.

Cut funding for social-science dissertations. It is perfectly possible for graduate students to complete dissertations while supporting themselves.

Cut every program that is designed to advance women and minorities in the social sciences. Women and minorities are seldom disadvantaged in these fields, and anyway it isn’t the task of the National Science Foundation to engage in social policy.

Cut the NSF’s “RAPID” program. This is the funding mechanism that NSF uses to allocate support to programs that it deems in need of immediate support and which can’t wait for the normal peer-review process. Dr. Gutmann’s example was rushing in social scientists to study communities affected by the Gulf oil spill last year. Of the 1,100 or so NSF grants last year, he estimated about 23 of them were RAPID. The opportunity for mischief with these grants, however, appears irresistible. For instance, last year the SBE Directorate announced a RAPID grant program to fund research on “The Impact of Federal Investments in Science and Technology Programs and to Advance the Scientific Understanding of Science Policy.” If this wasn’t just an exercise in trying to make the Obama administration look good, what was it? Where was the urgency that required bypassing ordinary peer review and standards of scientific importance?

By naming actual programs, I’m sure I didn’t make new friends. And my written testimony names various proposals that NSF has funded in recent years that don’t look much like basic science. But if we are going to protect the really important mission of the NSF and if we hope to sustain basic social science research as part of this, we need some hard reckoning.

This article originally appeared on June 5 in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations Blog.

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