The Social Sciences in the Crosshairs (Again)

This morning I watched the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology mark-up House Bill 4186. The bill, labeled as the “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology” (FIRST) Act of 2014 authorizes expenditures for the National Science Foundation.  The bill is controversial on a number of fronts.  Foremost it proposes a dramatic cut in the social sciences, while incrementally increasing the natural, mathematical and engineering sciences.  Second, it mandates a new set of criteria that officials at the NSF will have to sign off on when grants are awarded.  Both points are worrisome.

The social sciences have long been under attack by Congress.  Political science has long borne the brunt of Congress’ displeasure (see an article from 2013 chronicling this).  Political scientists are a fair target.  After all, we study politics and we often study Congress.  Some of our findings are critical of members and the institution. But the intent of the research is not to disparage the institution, rather the aim is to understand the basic conditions under which democracy flourishes.

The FIRST Act moves beyond political science.  This year’s budget request by the President (which was in line with what NSF requested) put the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE) at $272 million.  This constituted an increase over an estimated $257 million in expenditures for this fiscal year.  The FIRST Act authorized $150 million for SBE.  All of the other NSF Directorates were given additional monies that added up to the amount slashed from SBE.  Congress continues to hold the NSF in high regard and granted much of what the agency requested.  On the other hand SBE faced a 42% cut in funding.  In a rare show of bipartisanship on the Subcommittee an amendment passed that boosted SBE funding to $200 million.  The amendment by Rep. Lipinski (D-IL) passed unanimously under voice vote.  While this may seemingly be scored as a victory, it remains a loss.  If the bill stands, and there is no guarantee of this, SBE will be $57 million below its current funding level.

To give some sense of what this means, consider that the average annual grant is around $125,000.  This is money that goes to support the research, graduate and undergraduate students and overhead paid to Universities.  This is equivalent, then to 456 one-year grants that will simply disappear (and the student experiences that will disappear with them).  Another way to think of this is that $57 million is the combined total of the programs in Economics, Political Science, Sociology and Law and Social Sciences.

The arguments offered for cutting SBE are well meaning.  In a time of scarcity and lean budgets, Congress needs to set priorities.  The majority party in the House argues that the natural sciences and engineering need to have their budgets increased.  After all, these are the sciences that contribute to economic growth by inventing new goods.  Interestingly, economists have a great deal to say about scientific innovation and its effect on the economy.  But, it is likely that their voices will be muted in future conversations assuming these cuts are implemented.  Several Members of Congress pointed out the extent to which the social sciences offer important contributions to understanding and facilitating economic growth, providing for national defense and understanding learning and development for children.  Yet these appeals fell on deaf ears.  Science apparently involves beakers, test-tubes and computers.  Apparently it does not involve understanding humans.

The second worrisome element of the FIRST Act is that it requires NSF officials to point out how funded research satisfies a new set of criteria.  While the old NSF criteria involving Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts is retained, added to this list is that funded research must be in the national interest in one of six ways:  (1) increasing economic competitiveness; (2) advancing the health and welfare of the American public; (3) developing a STEM workforce; (4) increasing partnerships between academia and industry; (5) supporting the national defense; or (6) promoting the progress of science.  All are laudable goals for any form of taxpayer funded research and these criteria are not onerous.  For example the last criterion is an easy threshold to pass.  Criteria (1) and (5) are identical to the language that handcuffed the Political Science Program last year.  What intrigues me is criterion (4).  Encouraging partnerships between basic science researchers and industry seems like a slippery slope.

Throughout the course of discussion and prepared statements during the markup it became clear that the Majority party is worried about economic growth.  Science is a likely candidate for developing new widgets to spur growth.  However, there is little thought given to basic research and how it is different from applied research.  NSF’s mandate is to support basic research.  In the past industry was responsible for its own “Research and Development.”  It captured rents from its own research investments and these were usually focused on very applied needs of that industry.  The thought that taxpayer dollars will go to directly subsidize applied R&D needs of specific industries is an odd turn of events.  That this turns out to be priority that Congress insists that the NSF push shakes my confidence in the future of basic research.

I have no doubt that clever scientists can tailor their proposals to address any of these six criteria.  I have no doubt that officials at NSF, when choosing the best science, can justify their decisions.  I worry, however, that these criteria begin to change what program officers look for when deciding awards.  Basic science often fails to make breakthroughs.  But we learn from failures and we rarely know the full implications of our own work.  An unfettered science makes progress, while a highly constrained science does not.  Many of these criteria move away from mandating original and excellent basic research.

What can social scientists do?  The current attacks extend beyond a single discipline. All of the social sciences are now in the crosshairs of Congress.  Clearly our contributions to knowledge are not well understood.  I have written this many times before (and others have done it much more eloquently than I):  we need to figure out how best to communicate to others what it is that we do.  More on this in future posts.

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