Picking on Social Science

House Republicans invite scrutiny of federal funding for social and behavioral sciences. Is anyone biting?
December 21, 2010

A bid to question the merits of federal funding for social and behavioral science research may be failing to capture the public's attention, even as it signals that larger and more polarizing battles over science, federal policy and money could lie ahead.

On Aug. 13, Rep. Adrian Smith, (R-Nebraska) posted a clip on YouTube announcing the launch of YouCut -- an attempt to get citizens to crowdsource ways to cut the federal budget. In YouCut's first foray, Rep. Smith invites viewers to share their impressions of grants for research that have been awarded by the National Science Foundation. After praising the NSF for supporting discoveries in the "hard" sciences (typically math, engineering, and the physical, natural and computational sciences), which have spurred economic growth, he cites what he sees as two of the NSF's more suspect awards.

"University academics received a $750,000 grant to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contribution of soccer players," he says (it's actually a Northwestern University project led by engineering and business professors to develop strategies to better assemble effective teams in virtual communities). Rep. Smith also mentions a $1.2 million award to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game and movie industries (the project involves Cornell University computer scientists finding ways to change how sound is manufactured in interactive virtual environments).

Attacks of this nature -- which tend to target perceived intellectual and cultural elites -- often gain traction during periods in which Republicans control at least one house of Congress, as they are about to do. This position of power enables them to hold hearings, call for votes on specific projects and exert some control over the purse strings of federal agencies. Such attacks already have begun. Republicans led a successful effort earlier this month to pressure the Smithsonian Institution to remove a work of art from the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," for its perceived anti-Christian imagery.

"We’ve been down this road before," said Howard Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, who recited a litany of efforts by politicians of both parties to question science research. Often cited as the originator of this type of Congressional activity is Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin), whose Golden Fleece awards drew attention to wasteful spending -- with scientific research one of his favorite targets. More recently, Pat Toomey, then Republican representative and now senator from Pennsylvania, tried in 2003 to block National Institutes of Health-backed research on sexual risk-taking.

Many times, these salvos -- in which politicians pounce on silly-sounding research projects, often without understanding their underlying purpose -- have ended up backfiring. Proxmire once ridiculed federal money spent to study the screwworm fly, but later conceded that this research led to extremely effective efforts to eradicate the nasty pest that devoured the flesh of cattle. Mark Sanford, as a U.S. representative from South Carolina, sought to freeze NSF funding. He staked much of his argument that the agency mismanaged money on the fact that it supported research into ATMs, a term he mistakenly thought referred to automatic teller machines. Instead, it describes asynchronous transfer mode, a telecommunications innovation that enables data, voice and video to be transmitted in one data stream.

YouCut's scrutiny of the NSF -- which Silver described as "interesting political theater" -- is more explicit than past efforts in dividing the physical and natural sciences on the one hand from the behavioral and social sciences on the other. Silver said he was troubled by Representatives Eric Cantor's and John Boehner's 2009 proposal to President Obama seeking to cut in half the NSF's $198 million allotted for awards in behavioral and social science. "Unlike NSF’s other hard science programs (such as engineering and biological sciences)," Boehner and Cantor wrote in 2009, "these soft science programs are often more controversial and less directly related to NSF’s core mission." That statement was written before both men were slated to assume much more power -- Boehner as Speaker of the House and Cantor as Majority Leader. And their interest in finding areas in the budget to cut has remained undimmed.

Rep. Smith's address on YouTube continues to distinguish between the value of these branches of science. While the two examples he offers as evidence of questionable research blend different scientific disciplines, Smith frames NSF's most worthy work as being in engineering or the physical, natural and computational sciences. He asks viewers to "help us identify grants which do not support the hard sciences or which you don’t think are a good use of taxpayer dollars.”

Experts and advocates for science in general, and social science in particular, have questioned this separation. "It’s sort of an easy way to make political hay," said Silver, noting that social and behavioral sciences account for a small fraction of the NSF's annual awards (about 3 percent of the agency's $6 billion total budget, according to the agency). "Is there a business in this country that doesn’t need to understand human or societal behavior? This whole business of saying these aren’t as useful or as important as natural or physical science doesn’t make sense to me."

Similarly, Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities, said his organization and its allies will need to make a forceful case that social sciences are as important an investment as the the natural and physical sciences, while acknowledging that no formal campaign was in the works. Toiv cited the University of Michigan's surveys of consumers as an example of how social science research benefits public policy. Another example: the research now being conducted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on understanding nonverbal cues. The results could help troops in Afghanistan better read the body language of people with whom they cannot communicate verbally, he said. "A particular project may sound funny or irrelevant, but you never know where that’s going to lead," said Toiv.

To a great extent, this argument has been won within the NSF, based on its commitment to fund cross-disciplinary research, which was articulated in August by the agency's assistant director for the social, behavioral and economic sciences.

Among policy-makers, it's a different story, albeit one with some new technological, rhetorical, disciplinary and political wrinkles. YouCut's use of crowdsourcing marks a "clever" change in approach, said Al Teich, director of science and policy programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "This is a high-tech twist on an old story," he said. Teich and others hope that it could be fruitfully deployed by scientists and their advocates to make the case for their research. "It might be a useful technique to engage the public in this sort of conversation," he said.

April L. Burke, founder of the lobbying and consulting firm Lewis-Burke Associates, also thought the effort to focus attention, through YouCut, on the NSF could serve as a valuable opportunity for the sorts of people and institutions she represents -- research universities and scientific organizations. Scientists and their advocates would do well to see the latest scrutiny not as a blanket condemnation of science and cause for offense, but as an invitation to make the case as to why the NSF should fund social science, she said. "I’d rather see us launch a positive campaign and talk to members of Congress and get them comfortable with social sciences and physical sciences," said Burke, "and save our angry powder for when we’re really under attack."

It is not clear that the bid to draw close scrutiny to the NSF has had the desired effect. While the clip was posted in August, the effort only started to generate more widespread attention in the past two weeks, from such outlets as Wired and USA Today. YouTube tracking data indicate that Rep. Smith's address had generated, as of press time, about 12,200 views over the past four months. Twelve viewers indicated that they like the page, while 195 dislike it. Responses on Twitter to Rep. Smith's address have not been particularly kind, either. Some have called it a “witch hunt,” “catastrophically dumb,” and dangerous in a country with a high rate of scientific illiteracy.

Rep. Smith’s office referred to Rep. Cantor's office questions from Inside Higher Ed on the number of awards that have been challenged. Rep. Cantor's office did not respond to several calls and e-mails -- including a request to clarify whether any citizens had raised objections. Maria Zacharias, a spokeswoman for the NSF, said she was not aware of any other grants being called into question by members of the public, though such a lack of result is not necessarily unexpected.

Several observers thought the real significance of the YouCut episode was that it offered a preview of upcoming efforts to trim federal spending on NSF and other agencies back to 2008 funding levels, and of looming investigations over climate science or energy policy. Teich's group, the AAAS, has offered a sober but slightly hopeful view of the shifting landscape since last month's election, and suggested that consensus in science funding, climate change and energy policy could still be built.

Toiv, of the AAU, declined to see the prospect of future conflicts over research in strictly partisan terms. He said political pressure over the deficit was bound to place discretionary domestic spending, which is the source of NSF's money, under the microscope. "There was going to be a problem no matter which party won," he said. But, he added, it remains important for advocates of scientific research to highlight the economic argument to support future funding. "We cannot hope to have the kind of economic growth we need to address the deficit issue without, over the long-term, making these investments now in basic research," said Toiv. "These are investments. That’s what needs to be clear."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top