New NSF Social Science Agenda

Agency calls for a broad rethinking of priorities over the next decade -- both in areas to be studied and major infrastructure projects to support.
August 16, 2010

ATLANTA -- Seeking to move "beyond near-term funding cycles," leaders of the National Science Foundation briefed sociologists here Sunday about plans to create a strategy to support the social sciences over the next decade.

Myron Gutmann, assistant director for the social, behavioral and economic sciences at the NSF, told those gathered for the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association that this is an "unparalleled time" in terms of interest across the sciences in working with social scientists on some of the top issues of the day.

And as a result, he said, it is an appropriate time to think long term for the agency and the social sciences. Gutmann said that the NSF would like to see for the social sciences something similar to a project conducted by the National Research Council every decade: a plan for astronomy and astrophysics research for the next 10 years. (The most recent plan was released on Friday.)

While the NSF is best known for its support of work in the physical and computational sciences, it has long been a significant player in the social sciences, with close ties to academe. The agency funds tens of millions of dollars of research a year and supports everything from basic research by senior scholars to dissertation fellowships. Gutmann was named to his position last year, having been a demographic historian previously at the University of Michigan.

The NSF is seeking advice on shaping the agenda, but on a relatively tight time frame -- with a request for ideas having gone out late last week, with a deadline of the end of September. Gutmann said he hoped the review would be done by the time officials start shaping the 2013 budget proposal, which is a process that starts next spring.

Gutmann said that the agency wants to rethink three main areas:

  • Identifying the "big, underlying questions" that deserve more study and support. He acknowledged the difficulty inherent in thinking too far into the future on such matters, since new questions will emerge. But he said that he thought many of these questions "are not so far in outer space that we aren't aware of them now." He cited the demography of aging and of immigration as two such examples of social science topics likely to only get more important and to gain greater relevance in the future.
  • Defining "capacity" issues. Given that the NSF supports everything from undergraduate education to scholarly research, he said it is time to think about which areas are most in need of which kinds of support that the agency could offer.
  • Refining "infrastructure" support. For the NSF, social sciences infrastructure consists of numerous large, longitudinal surveys and the databases that result from those studies -- of which most of the prominent ones have received considerable agency support over the years. Gutmann said that he is "very proud" of the NSF's role in building these surveys, and that he wasn't looking to stop support for any of them. But he said that the largest of these projects were now started decades ago, and that he wondered if there were new topics that deserved such support.

He stressed, in his remarks and in answers to questions, that the NSF is strongly committed, in its current grant programs and in the new agenda, to seeking out and supporting interdisciplinary projects -- both among the social sciences and in projects linking the social sciences to other sciences. In some respects, this is going on even before the 10-year plan is developed. He said that major new funds would be available next year for environmental research -- including studies that would probably involve social scientists working on the human impact of certain environmental practices.

At the same time, he noted that there are obstacles to this approach. At the NSF, he said, there are limited funds. "If you triple the number of senior investigators, you can triple the budget," he said, and that's only rarely possible to do.

Gutmann also said he believes that universities remain slow -- despite many statements they make to the contrary -- to truly supporting interdisciplinary work. He said that many graduate programs are not teaching interdisciplinary approaches in graduate programs, and that many universities "are less than perfect" when it comes to rewarding interdisciplinary work in the tenure and promotion process.


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