Recently on this page, articles by columnists George Will and Jeane Kirkpatrick and Post editorial page staff member Amy E. Schwartz have portrayed a rift at the National Academy of Sciences between members who are natural scientists and those who are social scientists.
This unfortunate impression was created in April when a social scientist nominated for academy membership was not elected by members present at the annual meeting. Yet critics are mistaken when they interpret this one event as a rejection of the social sciences generally or, more broadly, as a politicization of the election process. About 175 members of the academy, or nearly 12 percent of the total, are social or behavioral scientists. Seven more were elected in April.
Some natural scientists, including academy members, may be skeptical of social scientists. But it is clear to me that the great majority of that community regards social scientists as "real scientists" in any meaningful sense of the term.
Science is not a body of facts and theories, but a way of considering problems and viewing the world. Scientists observe phenomena, develop hypotheses, conduct experiments, analyze findings and generate knowledge. They may measure gamma rays or public opinion, but the process is the same. It is this process that is science.
The academy recognized this continuity of the sciences early in this century when it began admitting social and behavioral scientists to its membership. The academy had a good practical reason for opening its membership to these disciplines. Together with its affiliated institutions it plays a unique role in advising executive branch agencies and Congress on vital national issues. In recent months, for example, the academy complex has issued reports on AIDS, adolescent pregnancy, embassy security, the space shuttle, national security export controls, and nuclear reactor safety, to name only a few.
Many of these subjects required expertise in the social and behavioral sciences. For not a few, this was the essential expertise. Adolescent pregnancy, for example, is a health issue, but can only be understood and dealt with in a social context.
The presence of distinguished social scientists among our membership and the involvement of hundreds more social scientists on our study committees enable the academy to provide the government with analysis and advice that is more rounded and authoritative than would be possible otherwise. The process is strengthened further by the academy's traditional independence and nonpartisanship.
Will the social sciences continue to face skepticism in the future? Probably. Many of these disciplines are relatively young and lack the patina of tradition that accompanies most natural sciences. Yet, for anyone who has worked closely with social scientists, the scientific character of their work is inescapable.
Social scientists contribute enormously to important national issues, and all of us -- scientists and the public -- are better off as a result. The combined power of both the natural and social sciences can be particularly effective in providing analysis and insight on such matters as arms control and conflict resolution, industrial competitiveness, crime, disease and so many of the other problems that face our society in the years ahead. -- Frank Press The writer is president of the National Academy of Sciences.