Fending Off Attacks on Social Science

House rejects attempts to bar NSF grants whose titles were mocked by Republican lawmakers.
May 4, 2007

Hillary Anger Elfenbein recently had her research praised by Army officials as potentially providing insights that would be useful to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Someone who spent any time studying her research would know that. But Republican lawmakers who apparently didn't study it (let alone call Elfenbein for an explanation) instead tried to mock the work, and to bar the National Science Foundation from continuing a grant to support it.

Why? Apparently because its title -- "Accuracy in the cross-cultural understanding of others' emotions" -- struck them as silly. So with no advance warning, Elfenbein found out that the merits of her research would be discussed on the floor of the House of Representatives Wednesday. In the last Congress, Republicans used this approach to bar funds for research projects they didn't like or to push federal agencies not to support it, and while the bans were generally lifted later in the legislative process, the action was widely condemned by scholarly groups as anti-intellectual and disruptive to the peer review process.

This year, the social scientists under attack fared better. The House rejected two proposals that would have barred NSF funds from going to a series of grants in the social sciences. The votes came in consideration of legislation to reauthorize the NSF and to create new research and education programs. While there is some quibbling about the exact way to improve the NSF, there is broad bipartisan support for most of the goals of the overall bill.

The attacks on social science projects that had been approved through peer review led various disciplinary organizations to send out alerts to members this week, rallying support. In fact that's how Elfenbein -- a University of California at Berkeley psychology professor -- found out about the questions being raised about her studies.

Rep. John Campbell, a California Republican, cited the budget deficit in going after the social science research, including Elfenbein's work as well as studies on bison hunting and on sexual politics in Dakar.

"I am sure that some believe that these are very fine academic studies. That's excellent. Within the realms of academic halls, they may think a number of things are fine academic studies. That's not the question," Campbell said on the House floor. "The question before us is, do these things rise to the standard of requiring expenditures of taxpayer funds in a time of deficits, proposed tax increases and raiding Social Security funds?"

Leading the opposition to Campbell was Rep. Brian Baird, a Washington State Democrat who formerly was a psychology professor at Pacific Lutheran University. He stressed the role of peer review and the necessity of actually knowing about the research grants being discussed.

"Prohibiting specific grants sets a dangerous precedent for scientific research that has progressed and advanced for decades through freedom of inquiry into a broad spectrum of subjects," he said. "While Congressional oversight of federal programs is, of course, important, second-guessing peer review in this way could compromise the fabric of our public research enterprise one thread at a time."

Baird also offered his guess that Campbell would be surprised to find out that the Army has praised Elfenbein's research. "When you look at a cursory examination of the title, or an abstract, you don't have an idea. That's why we have peer review," Baird said. "Which particular study am I talking about? I'm talking about the Study of the Accuracy of Cross Cultural Understanding of Others' Emotions. What we are talking about here is if you're going to be dealing with people from another culture, and you misread their expression of emotions, it can cost you your life, your buddies their life, or the innocent civilians their lives.... I wonder if the gentleman had looked at chemistry research or physics research in the same way, and do we really want to spend this body's time, and do you, sir, or you, sir, have the expertise to evaluate these studies? That's why we have a peer-review process."

Campbell's press office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Howard Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, said it was "gratifying" to see the research grants protected by Congress this year. Silver said that social scientists face these problems because lawmakers think they can understand a project from its title -- something they generally concede they can't do in the sciences.

Silver joked that he imagines his counterparts in the physical sciences facing a phone call from a member of Congress demanding to know "what is this quark stuff?" but such calls won't come. "They don't touch that because they don't understand it," he said.

The added irony of Elfenbein as a target is that her work not only is being used by the Army, but can benefit American businesses. An assistant professor of organizational behavior and industrial relations at Berkeley's business school, Elfenbein said the underlying premise of her work is that while all people have emotions, different cultures express them in different ways. While that may seem simple enough, many people don't know the signals people may give to indicate anger, fear, excitement or other feelings. Her work involves comparing the way members of different groups generally express certain feelings, not just with words, but with body language, inflections and other movements.

In the corporate world, especially an increasingly multicultural one, this is important for managers to understand. For the military, she said this is especially important with military forces deployed in regions where they do not speak the language, and where the military faces a shortage of translators. "People need to figure out -- at the most basic level -- are those they are seeing friends or foes?"

Elfenbein is pleased that the House didn't try to kill support for her work, but she's angry that no one called to ask her about it. "If anyone had called, I would been happy to explain what this is about," she said. And she finds herself questioning the way she handled the title of her project. She said that she tried to make it as colloquial as possible, so people could understand, but wonders if that was the best strategy.

For now, she feels relief. "I wouldn't want anyone else to experience what I did yesterday," she said.


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