Why Elizabeth Warren cares about funding the social sciences

November 6, 2013
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Science Magazine reports that Sen. Elizabeth Warren is pushing back hard against Sen. Tom Coburn’s attack on National Science Foundation funding for the social sciences.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) issued a full-throated endorsement of the value of basic research to the nation—and to her colleagues in the U.S. Congress. “When policymakers tie the hands of social science researchers,” Warren said, “they are tying their own hands.” … “Social science research is a compass for policymakers,” she added. “It points us in the right direction.” Placing restrictions on what NSF can fund, she warned, “will threaten the ability of Congress to make good decisions by cutting off the pipeline of rigorous analysis to identify what policies work and what policies don’t work.” Warren said she was confident that Congress “will eventually” remove the Coburn language, but that the timing is uncertain. “The question is how long it will take.”

Science highlights Warren’s own NSF funded research when she was an academic. However, she not only did serious research as an academic — she also thought hard about the relationship between funding and research. In 2002, she wrote an article, “The Market for Data: The Changing Role of Social Sciences in Shaping the Law,” which rebuts in advance the generic argument that the U.S. government should stop funding social science, because if this “research is as valuable as its proponents say, someone other than the U.S. Treasury will pay for it.”

As Warren points out, people are prepared to pay for social science data. The problem is that the buyers aren’t interested in finding out what is true. They are interested in pushing results that will promote their economic interests.

[A] vigorous market for data exists. Journalists are hungry for “facts” to pepper their reports, lobbyists are eager to promote helpful “facts” and discredit unhelpful “facts” and some in Congress are assembling “facts” to support foregone conclusions … the market is creating an anti-market, in which one study seems to contradict another, leaving policy makers free to ignore all data and making such scholarship not only difficult but useless.

Warren documents how financial interests pushing for changes in bankruptcy reform systematically endeavored to create their own data, through commissioning reports and funding friendly research centers in academic institutions.

In this context, NSF funding for research on major social and political questions can play a crucial role. On the one hand, it provides researchers with alternative sources of funding than the economic interests who would like them to take one side or another on controversial questions. The NSF is in the business of funding researchers who don’t know the answers, but would like to find out what they are, regardless of which interests are discomfited and advantaged. It doesn’t fund research that looks like it wants to support preordained conclusions.

On the other, the existence of NSF-funded data helps keep even special interest-funded research a little more honest than it otherwise would be. The NSF tries to make good quality data publicly available. This makes it tougher for researchers who rely on special interests for continued funding to maintain credibility while using their own proprietary data, which may be skewed subtly or substantially. People are much more likely to ask uncomfortable questions about why they aren’t using the publicly available data, and why they aren’t (as they usually aren’t) prepared to make their own data publicly available.

Warren’s pushback against efforts to stymie NSF funding for the social sciences isn’t a Damascene conversion. It’s the newest round in a fight that she has been waging for decades, and that she apparently began long, long before she ever thought seriously about running for elected office.

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John Sides | November 6, 2013