June 9, 2012

In his June 5 op-ed column, “Your tax dollars at work,” Charles Lane defended the Republican attempt to eliminate the political science program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and suggested similar action for all social science programs because “these disciplines can never achieve the objectivity of the natural sciences.”

Mr. Lane’s argument was flawed in several ways.

First, most funding of political science from the NSF goes to the American National Election Study, which has become the primary source for understanding how Americans have voted since 1948. It is used by social scientists of every ideological persuasion.

Second, Republicans don’t seem to share Mr. Lane’s charge that it is only social science that is biased. Conservatives in the Congress and state legislatures have gone after hard scientists studying climate change.

Finally, Mr. Lane’s argument — that if a study is worth conducting, there will be private sources of funding — showed he does not understand how little funding there is for most social science research.

My own experience has been a strong tightening of support from private foundations — and a shift away from basic research toward programs aimed at social change. Without NSF funding, there would be, for instance, no American National Election Study. Would “society . . . have reaped equal or greater benefits through other uses of the money,” as Mr. Lane argued? One could make a similar argument about any expenditure. A better question might be whether our society benefits from supporting basic research.

Eric M. Uslaner, College Park

The writer is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

I agree with Charles Lane’s point that Congress legitimately sets national funding priorities and that this includes whether and how the various sciences are funded. But I was appalled by the rest of what he wrote and its caricature of modern social science.

At one time the skeptics about the social and behavioral sciences were the so-called “hard scientists,” but at both the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security, I found that physicists, engineers and other such scientists were among social science’s strongest supporters. They realized the limits of what their sciences studied and could accomplish, as well as the methodological rigor of the social sciences. They had also come to realize that human behavior lies at the core of almost every important problem our country faces and that, without equal knowledge of human behavior, advances in their sciences would provide little if any benefits.

Richard Lempert, Arlington

The writer was director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Social and Economic Sciences from 2002 to 2006 and chief scientist in the Human Factors/Behavioral Science Division of the Department of Homeland Security from 2008 to 2011.