Social Sciences Face Uphill Battle Proving Their Worth to Congress

Anyone attending yesterday's congressional hearing on funding the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences at the National Science Foundation is likely to have come away thinking that NSF had dodged a metaphorical bullet aimed at decimating support for those fields. But appearances can be deceiving.

The hearing, by the research panel of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology examined NSF's $255-million-a-year research portfolio in those disciplines. It's a perennial target for some legislators, who have argued that the research is frivolous or worse. But there was no mention yesterday of a report issued last week by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) that ridiculed many of the grants NSF has awarded to scientists working in those fields. In addition, only one of the four witnesses said they favored zeroing out the entire SBE directorate, one of Coburn's suggestions, arguing that the private sector could fill the gap.

The chair of the panel, Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL), explained that "the goal of this hearing is not to question whether the social, behavioral, and economic sciences produce interesting and sound research, as I believe we all can agree that they do." Instead, Brooks said he wanted to examine national priorities across all scientific disciplines and whether the federal government needed to support these fields.

Later, when he asked the witnesses for ideas on shrinking the government's $1.6 trillion deficit, Brooks made it clear he was talking about possible cuts to NSF's entire $7 billion budget, not simply its SBE directorate.

But Brooks may have been pulling his punches. In comments to ScienceInsider after the hearing, Brooks expressed serious doubts about the value of the social sciences. The freshman legislator said he "understands the value of basic research" because his constituents in and around Huntsville, Alabama, make up "one of, if not the most, highly educated districts in the sciences." Brooks did say that "my priorities would be to protect basic research in the sciences as much as possible, even to the extent of cutting entitlements, in order to generate enough funding for basic research." But his definition of the term "basic research" turns out to be synonymous with the so-called hard sciences, and to exclude the social sciences.

Q: Do you support Coburn's call to eliminate the SBE directorate?
: No, I have no predisposition on which direction to head. But if I had to prioritize, I think that basic science generates more economic activity, which in turn helps supports all the other things we want government to do, than do the social sciences.

Q: So SBE, in your opinion, is not funding the same kind of basic science that the rest of NSF funds?
: I don't know what you mean by the rest of NSF. But with respect to the hard sciences, I have a priority with respect to them.

Q: What do you mean by the hard sciences?
: Physics, math, materials development, and, although this may be outside NSF's portfolio, advances in health care. That's hard science to me. And you can see more tangible results there. So the social sciences have a greater burden of proof.

Brooks acknowledges that the science panel, as an authorizing committee, has little sway over decisions made by the powerful Appropriations Committee, which approves the annual budgets for each federal agency. But his position does provide him with a platform. His predecessor on the research subcommittee when the Democrats controlled the House, for example, led a successful fight in 2007 against criticism of specific NSF grants in the social sciences. So it will be worth watching to see if Brooks chooses to take a visible stand on the issue.