July 13, 2011

Making the (Funding) Cut: The NSF, Anthropology, and the value of social science

Social science research isn't on the firmest ground in these days of economic malaise, but it's not like this news is exactly exploding into the headlines across the nation.  Funding cuts, like the recent "trimming" of the Fulbright program,* seem to take place somewhat under the radar.   The same can be said of the recent debates about the value of social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences that took place about a month ago in a congressional hearing on June 2, 2011 (this link has PDFs of the introductory statements and the testimony of all the witnesses).  The social sciences face an uphill battle, in part, because some folks see them as mere "soft sciences" that do not merit public support.  The House panel subcommittee meeting was about assessing the relative merit of the social sciences and how federal funding should or should not be allocated to researchers.  Did you hear about this?  Well, I didn't--at least not until just a few days ago.  Funny what can happen in the middle of the summer, isn't it?  Anyway, here's a recap of what went down according to a summary from the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA):

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) chaired the panel, which included the testimony of four witnesses:  Myron Gutman (Assistant Director for NSF's SBE directorate), Hillary Anger Elfenbein (Olin School of Business at Washington University, St. Louis), Peter Wood (President of the National Association of Scholars), and finally Diana Furchtgott-Roth (Senior fellow at the Hudson Institute).  Here's how Brooks described the basic purpose of the hearing:
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. I come from a social science background. I have a degree in political science and economics. Rather, the goal of our hearing is to look at the need for federal investments in these disciplines, how we determine what those needs are in the context of national priorities, and how we prioritize funding for those needs, not only within the social science disciplines, but also within all science disciplines, particularly when federal research dollars are scarce.
Brooks' language sounds cool, rational, and impartial.  However, according to journalist Jeffrey Mervis:
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.
Gutman, for his part, argued in defense of NSF funding for social science research.  From the COSSA report: "[Gutman] provided many examples of how SBE research has served the nation including research on human actions and decision making, terrorism, artificial speech, matching markets and kidney transplants, spectrum auctions and the importance of protecting social networks in disaster situations." Elfeinbein, who is a psychologist by training, also provided testimony about the value and applicability of of social science research.  She discussed the applicability of her own research for business, the military, medicine, and education.  When asked why SBE science is important for science in general, the Federal government, and the American taxpayer, Elfeinbein stated (from the PDF of her actual testimony):
The social and behavioral sciences in general are important because technology, health, industry, and politics are ultimately in the hands of people--who behave rationally and irrationally.  The learning and implementation of all other sciences depends on the human factor.
That is certainly a point that many anthropologists would agree with.  Up next was the anthropologist in the crowd, Peter Wood.  His position was that "the SBE sciences should not be x-ed out completely from the budget of the NSF or other federal agencies." However, Wood did say that he thinks a small percentage of SBE funding goes to what he called "trivialities and politicized programs." Wood laid out a "triage" approach to cutting the SBE NSF budget, which he explained in more detail a few days later in a post he wrote for the Chronicle of High Ed called "How to Save the Social Sciences."  Wood's first point was that there is plenty of funding sources that are non-governmental, so NSF funding isn't all that necessary.  His second point: there are already too many SBE PhD's, and the NSF is making the situation worse by continuing to fund them.  His third point of this triage is where things start getting a little dicey.  Wood advised the panel to:
Pay attention to the rise of anti-scientific ideologies within SBE disciplines. In my field of anthropology, for example, the recent controversy over the attempt by the Executive Board of American Anthropological Association to jettison “science” from the AAA’s mission statement is a pertinent example. Should NSF fund “social science” research in fields that reject the paradigm of scientific investigation?
Take the time to read the COSSA report, and Wood's version of his testimony.  I don't know all that much about Peter Wood, and I really do not understand why he would characterize anthropology like this.  It makes no sense to me.  Look, I am not going to over-editorialize here, but I do not think this was the most judicious way of representing the discipline of anthropology, especially in a House hearing.**  Regardless, Wood wrapped up his testimony with some very specific suggestions about funding cuts:
  1. Cut that $57-million sustainability-education program. It appears to be nothing but ideology dressed up to look like basic science.
  2. Cut funding for economics. Alternative funding for research in economics is abundant.
  3. Cut funding for social-science dissertations. It is perfectly possible for graduate students to complete dissertations while supporting themselves.
  4. Cut every program that is designed to advance women and minorities in the social sciences. Women and minorities are seldom disadvantaged in these fields, and anyway it isn’t the task of the National Science Foundation to engage in social policy.
  5. Cut the NSF’s “RAPID” program. This is the funding mechanism that NSF uses to allocate support to programs that it deems in need of immediate support and which can’t wait for the normal peer-review process.
Furchtgott-Roth, who is a former Chief Economist at the Department of Labor, was the last to provide testimony.  Her  argument about NSF funding for SBE sciences: CUT IT ALL. Why?  According to the COSSA summary, she said:
Since "social, behavioral and economic sciences research does not fit the conditions that define it as a 'public good,'" [...] it should receive no funding from the Federal government, particularly NSF. She indicated that Foundations were a source that SBE scientists could use and since Smith, Marx, and Keynes all conducted their research without government support, so could today's economists and other social scientists.
She does acknowledge the value of SBE research, but there is an important caveat: "There is much outstanding work produced every year in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences.  It fills journals and working papers and is presented at conferences.  The question at issue is not the quality of this research, but whether the federal government should fund it" (Furchtgott-Roth testinomy).  She then goes on to argue that there are plenty of private foundations with plenty of funding, and that if the federal government does indeed fund SBE research, the NSF is not the right place.  Lastly, when asked if SBE research "advances the physical and life sciences," she flatly said no.  Furchtgott-Roth's conclusion about federal funding and social science was this:
During this time of shrinking federal dollars, when our debt is over $14 trillion and our deficit this year is projected at $1.6 trillion, the NSF should focus on basic physical and life sciences research rather than research in the social, economic and behavioral science.
We all know that more funding cuts are probably coming, and that things aren't going to be getting better anytime soon.  This makes it all the more imperative that anthropologists pay attention to the ways in which anthropology--and social science in general--is understood by and represented to the wider public.  This includes congressional committees that make funding decisions, often with limited understanding of the breadth and depth of anthropological work.  From the cuts to the Fulbright program, to this recent panel hearing, to Senator Tom Coburn's recent report on the NSF, it's clear that the social sciences are under fire.  This isn't exactly a new story, however: similar cuts were apparently proposed for NSF social science grants back in 2007, but those were successfully defeated. 

On July 12, the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a press release that speaks to these very issues:
More than 140 scientific societies and universities today sent a letter urging U.S. policymakers, in their need to cut spending, to avoid singling out specific programs—such as the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences—and to refrain from bypassing independent peer review.

The letter, routed to key lawmakers who are preparing to debate the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012, opposes any attempts to eliminate or substantially reduce funding for particular research programs. Defunding specific grants or entire scientific disciplines "sets a dangerous precedent that, in the end, will inhibit scientific progress and our international competitiveness," the group warned.
While the Society for Anthropological Sciences is a part of the letter, the American Anthropological Association is curiously absent.  I'm not sure why.  Regardless, it would probably behoove the anthropological community to become a more active--and vocal--part of these discussions.  Silence, in this case, is certainly not golden.

*About a month or so ago, Kerim wrote about the cuts to the Fulbright program here on Savage Minds.
**Peter Wood wrote about the whole #AAAFail controversy on the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  For comparison, check out Daniel Lende's summary of the whole ordeal, here.

Cross-posted on Savage Minds

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