The Reagan administration has begun a social science hour at the White House.
Twice a month the president, vice president, Cabinet and senior White House staff view charts and graphs. They listen to statisticians sketch profiles of our changing society. The object is to understand the background social facts against which policy will be mapped.
The Reagan team is building a reputation for a more sophisticated appreciation of social science research than any previous administration. Yet even as the social science hour gets under way, budgeteers at the other end of the White House are ordering huge cuts in the programs that produce the very data the administration wants to use.
This seeming contradiction prompted one administration social scientist to comment: "Where the hell do they think these numbers come from? They don't fall out of the sky. They are taking these numbers and these ideas, and throwing out the programs that produced them. It's unbelievable."
Of all the hundreds of Reagan budget cuts, few have appeared to be so ideological. Few seem so contradictory to the style of the administration. Few that are so small have engendered so much concern and protest even from friends of the administration.
And few others have the distinction of appearing to be perhaps a simple blunder.
Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman and others have complained for years that social sciences produce little or nothing useful, and that their studies are often used to support liberal social programs.
Sociologists admit there is biased social science in government, mission-oriented studies that discover exactly what the bureaucrats wanted to hear about their programs.
But that is not what has been cut by Stockman.
Although the intention apparently was to cut the loose, often partisan, mission-oriented social science carried on in some parts of the government, the cuts will kill the hardest, most neutral and most useful basic work in the social sciences. At the National Science Foundation in particular, the research is basic social science, the best in the field by all accounts.
At the NSF, basic research in three fields -- social, behavioral, and economic science -- costs little more than half the price of maintaining the Pentagon's military bands. Nevertheless, social science has been backed and the bands remain. Stockman listed cuts in NSF grants for social, economic, and behavioral research -- studies of everything from the gross national product to the origin of man -- from $49 million in 1981 to $16 million in 1982.
All new social science grants at the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration (ADAMHA), between $10 million and $20 million, are targeted as well.
The fields of study being hit include economics, political science, sociology, cognitive psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and social and developmental psychology. In three areas -- anthropology, economics and political science -- the NSF is the only U.S. government agency that gives grants for basic research. Basic work in those sciences will be almost wiped off the federal government's books.
The Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., houses racks of brown plastic tape containing extraordinary volumes of data about this country -- how Americans work, how they vote, look for houses, buy food, spend the minutes of their days, and make do when the money runs low. Thousands of questions and cross-questions about American behavior and feeling are logged here.
Now half its $15 million budget, and similar amounts at other major research centers, are threatened by the Reagan administration. The budget cuts will wipe out one-quarter to one-half of the entire field of basic research in social science, according to estimates by Harvard statistician Frederick Mostellar and others.
At the ISR, the research includes the National Election Studies, a collection of detailed information on every national election over the past three decades. The only resource of its kind, it is valued by politicians as well as political scientists, for it has triggered a transformation in politics: from a time when polls only followed the horse race to the current sophisticated analysis of voter attitudes and behavior that guides political strategy at all levels.
At the National Bureau of Economic Research in Boston, the work includes studies of Social Security, unemployment and monetary policy. One-third of the entire $6 million budget of the NBER is threatened. The bureau is considered the official arbiter of the business cycle in America because it tells us when we go into recession and when we recover. It has commanded respect from both Republican and Democratic administrations over the years for its nonpartisan scholarship.
At the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, the celebrated General Social Survey, the broadest and most basic data we have about our society, is threatened.
Besides these three famous centers of research, every major university in the country gets federal money to conduct basic research in the social sciences.
Here are a few recent examples of the Reagan administration's use of all this research:
Richard Wirthlin, President Reagan's personal polister and political strategist, spent several hours at the ISR a few weeks ago poring over the political and social data. Wirthlin sought data on patriotism, and how it has changed over the years, data on voters' distrust of government, and data on voters' feelings about America's leaders. The programs that provided him that data are now threatened.
The agency that made the drastic cuts in social science research, the president's Office of Management and Budget, uses it constantly.
Recently, OMB wanted to know about income trajectories -- how people's income rises and falls over time; the ISR study on this is the only source of such information, and it now may be shut down.
On another occasion, the OMB wanted to know about the effects of budget cuts: What cities and what regions would be hit? The most accurate, accessible record of where federal dollars are spent is at the ISR, where they got the call just as they were getting ready to shut down the study because of the OMB cuts.
The administration's most important use of social science, however, may be at the new social science hour. The White House's chief planner, Richard Beal, started the sessions.
"It's a system for providing social and demographic information to the policy people in a systematic and regular way, in advance of policy debates," Beal says. "If we are going to look at health care, then a month ahead we'll have a briefing on the way the health care system works. It's like the briefings we give the president on international situations. . .
"The baby boom, the enormous change in population that we are getting, affects every piece of domestic legislation we deal with. . . . You've got to know how the pig is moving through the python."
Beal believes that the White House policymakers need a sense of the scale and movement of things and how "everything has its cross-impacts on everything else in society . . . we want to give policymakers a view of that changing world through these numbers."
The administration doesn't see a contradiction in simultaneously using and cutting social science research, says Edwin Dale, OMB's associate director for public affairs. "Because the administration uses some kinds of social science research doesn't make all social science research a high-ranking candidate for federal funding," he said.
At the Institute for Social Research, F. Thomas Juster, its director, says more than half the budget comes from threatened long-term data base programs such as the national election and income dynamics studies. Tracking the same questions year after year, these are to social science what the telescope is to astronomy. Without such data it is impossible to follow change in society, to mark new trends or identify fundamental, unchanging rules.
"The administration is embarking on a major social experiment. And what? They want to eliminate the knowledge, information and understanding of the society at the same time? It's . . . it's . . . silly," Juster said.
The long-term study of income dynamics has interviewed annually for 14 years more than 5,000 families. The families over that time have come together and have split, have aged, and have sent off new, young families on their own. It is a tiny nation, counted questioned and tabulated. All are asked about income and expenditures, their jobs, how they raise their kids, about housework and about food, about the age when the kids leave home, and when the grandparents return to it.
"After many years of following these people, you can't find anything about their behavior patterns, or their attitudes, or anything else, that has anything to do with their economic success or failure. It looks like a random event," says James Morgan, the ISR researcher in charge.
"Now that's an important issue for people who believe that the poor are poor because of their own indolence, nefariousness, or neglect.
"We also find that there really are two very different categories of poor people. There is a vast difference between the people who stay poor all the time and the people who are poor only once in a while," Morgan says. "That's important because we wasted a billion dollars in the 1980 census . . . they're counting the wrong thing!"
The federal statistics make no distinction between those who slip into poverty one year only and those who live in it all their lives. Distinguishing the two kinds of poor would allow money to go to the right places -- poverty money to the hard-case poor, and unemployment, training, and other programs to the temporarily poor.
Another ISR long-term study, begun 17 years ago, uses diaries to record how Americans use their time. This time-use study maps a hidden terrain in the American economy, Juster says. Wealth and production should be measured not only in dollars, but also in the time available to people and how they spend it. Huge amounts of uncounted production occur in off hours -- people grow food, repair houses, build additions, entertain families, do volunteer work.
Juster said this turn up a stunning bit of information: the much-discussed productivity lag in the United States may be an illusion, "a simple measurement error.
"From the diaries, we counted up the number of hours actually spent at work versus the number of hours off. We found that it was different than what is . . . used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics [on national productivitity figures]. There is a 15 percent discrepancy. People spend a lot less time at work than the government figures say." Productivity may not have slumped as dramatically as experts thought.
Not only will this information be lost if the studies are closed, Morgan says, but it is unlikely that they will ever be restarted because of the difficulty in putting such projects together.
"You're not going to start another like this in a hurry," he says. ". . . now, to keep it going, the cost is $1 million a year. The first year, starting from scratch, you'd be in for $10 million before you turned around."
These anxieties at Ann Arbor are matched at other research centers and major universities across the country.
At the University of Washington, for instance, a researcher has challenged the centuries-old belief that the best evidence in criminal cases is an eye-witness. Elizabeth Loftus, using NSF funds that are being cut off, has found that eyewitnesses not only do not remember much accurately, but also inadvertently and unknowingly change their memories after the event.
At eastern universities, two researchers who have followed the lives of heroin addicts for decades have found that users commit crime when they are high, but not when they aren't. And they are caught less than 1 percent of the time.
While one wing of the Reagan administration is intrigued by social research days, another is explaining that social sciences are far less important than the natural sciences of biology, physics and mathematics. Those so-called "hard" sciences were given budget increases because they are more productive in the economy, says Frederick Khedouri, OMB associate director in charge of science.
He also contends that the natural sciences are less able to find funding outside the government. "In the social sciences it will be easier to seek non-government funds -- from foundations and universities themselves," Khedouri said.
A year before he became budget chief, Stockman, then a Michigan congressman, joined with Texas Democrat Phil Gramm (now better known as co-sponsor of the Gramm-Latta budget resolution) to draft an alternative budget. Stockman and Gramm wrote that "soft" research produces no breakthroughs:
". . . Research in the social sciences, education, and economics may produce long-run improvements in social program design and operation, [but] there is a strong case to be made that overreliance on the pet theories of econometricians, educationists, and social science 'fixers' has created the vast gulf between federal spending and resultant social benefit that we now seek desperately to close.Given present fiscal realities, such research is a very low priority, and funding should be cut back drastically in the short term."
With these lines Stockman connects basic research in the social sciences with social programs such as those of the Great Society. Then he reduces social science research to "pet theories" that waste money and do not produce the social benefits promised.
"If that's what they believe then they just got it wrong factually," says Martin Feldstein, director of the National Bureau of Economic Research and a conservative economist with close ties to the administration. Feldstein not only supports the Reagan program but also did some of the economic research that backs up Reaganomics.
Feldstein contends that the National Science Foundation supports only pure, non-partisan research that is unconnected in any way with social programs.
"If they thought what they were getting rid of was support for the Great Society programs, they were wrong. . . . Many of the people, myself included, who have done the work critical of the Great Society programs, and the expansion during the Great Society period, were NSF funded -- including things like [the work on] Social Security and its adverse impact on savings. . . ."
Social research has always been controversial politically. It was banned in the Soviet Union and until recently in China. During the 1950s, congressional committees sought out "communist influence" in social science projects.
Rep. John Ashbrook (R-Ohio) for years has excoriated the NSF for supposedly fostering "social engineering." Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) has belittled NSF studies with his "Golden Fleece" award for wasteful spending.
Stockman apparently relied on his earlier budget paper to make many cuts. "We were instructed to cut science education by half and to reduce support for the social sciences by [three-quarters]," says a budget officer.
At the alcohol and drug abuse agency, a major governmental center of basic social science research, the cuts were more subtle. An OMB official tells of being asked why the agency couldn't have money for any new research although the National Institutes of Health could.
"I said, I guess that's because ADAMHA does a lot of work that's not hard science." After this clue, the agency asked if it could have funding for new research if it cut social research. OMB said yes.
At the National Institute of Drug Abuse the cuts apparently were accidental. Someone asked a computer to list all the NIDA research that used the word "social" and that became the list for cutting -- $9 million in studies, or 20 percent of the agency's budget.
In their own defense, social scientists say their studies of human behavior are easy targets for non-scientists who feel competent to criticize behavioral psychology or sociology but wouldn't dare try to judget biology or physics or astronomy. Aside from the lay criticism, however, some social scientists are prepared to concede that the practical results of their disciplines are unimpressive.
"I am afraid the record is a poor one. . . . We do not have any theories that allow us to predict events with more accuracy than intelligent laymen," says Allen Mazur of Syracuse University.
"Nor do we have any theories that allow us to construct better social systems -- schools, police forces, cities, nations -- than can be constructed by laymen. . . . I would not go so far as to say that professional social science has made no contribution at all, but what has been made is a little hard to find. Do not expect much from the social sciences. We are trying, but it is very hard work."