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Why Congress should not cut funding to the social sciences

Are politics worthy of serious study? Here, flags of the participating countries at the 17th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits in Hanoi on October 2010. (Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past several years, there has been a renewed push in Congress to cut federal funding, via the National Science Foundation (NSF), for political science and the social sciences. Here’s a brief timeline of such efforts since 2009 (see here for earlier episodes):

  • October 2009: Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) unsuccessfully pushed an amendment that would have eliminated the NSF political science program, which at that point cost about $5 million per year (compared with the $3 million that Coburn’s office cost). Afterward, he continued to issue reports criticizing various NSF grants as wasteful and to target political science in particular (except when he needed NSF-funded political science research to support a point).
  • March 2012: The House passed an amendment proposed by then-Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to defund the NSF political science program. Flake’s comments from that debate are here and here. This amendment was not adopted by the Senate.
  • March 2013: A version of Coburn’s amendment passed as part of a compromise to a budget bill. This amendment limited NSF political science funding to projects deemed essential to U.S. national security or economic interests. This caused the NSF political science program to skip one of its semiannual funding rounds while it figured out how to handle this. Some reactions at the time are here and here.
  • January 2014: Coburn’s amendment was not included in the omnibus appropriations bill, and thus the NSF political science program was freed from its strictures.
  • March 2014: The House Science Committee voted to cut social science funding — not just political science funding — as part of the reauthorization of the NSF. That cut did not make it into the ultimate appropriation to the NSF.

Now, in the last two months, two important things have happened.

First, in April the House passed a reauthorization of the National Science Foundation — the America Competes Act (H.R. 1806) — that cuts funding to the social sciences by 45 percent, even as it increases funding to the NSF overall. The NSF’s statement about the impact of the bill is here. Note that NSF spending on social science is a very small fraction of its total budget.

Second, late last week the House approved the appropriations bill that would fund the NSF — the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations bill (H.R. 2578). This bill would, among other things, direct money away from social science. It is unclear how much would be cut. One estimate is 15 percent.

Attitudes toward funding political and social science largely break down along partisan lines. Republicans support cuts, and Democrats oppose them. For example, the Obama administration opposes the America Competes Act as it was passed in the House. Given that opposition, and some uncertainty about what will happen in the Senate, it is unclear whether the NSF’s social science program will be cut, or if so, to what extent.

Unsurprisingly, many educational and scientific organizations oppose one or both of these bills, including the Association of American UniversitiesAmerican Physical Society, Consortium of Social Science Associations (here and here), Law and Society AssociationMidwest Political Science AssociationPopulation Association of AmericaSage Publications, and Union of Concerned Scientists.

One objection to these cuts is that Congress shouldn’t be playing favorites among the scientific disciplines that the NSF funds. I’m not as persuaded by that argument. It strikes me as within Congress’s prerogatives to prioritize particular kinds of spending, even at the expense of other kinds.

The more important objection centers on the value of social science research. This is the key argument for social scientists to make — and I tried to make it regarding my own NSF grant from three years ago — lest they be accused of simply advocating for goodies for themselves.

My belief, as I’ve argued before, is that social science is important because social phenomena affect people’s lives in profound ways. Social ills — poverty, lack of formal education, family dysfunction, ineffective governments, wars — are associated with and arguably cause a great deal of illness and death. Or, to put it in less dramatic terms, the quality of our lives depends a lot on families, schools and economic prosperity — to pick a few fundamental topics that social scientists study.

Political science matters here, too, because politics affects all of these things. Government policies can affect families —for example, by subsidizing child care or by enabling same-sex couples to marry and gain recognition for their own families. Politics also affects the economy, needless to say. Witness the gains or losses of wealth that could be attributed to government stimulus, to austerity, to debt ceiling debates, to financial crises. How political institutions function — and the roles played by voters, leaders, journalists, activists — will also end up affecting people’s lives in myriad other ways: whether they live in poverty, whether they get parental leave when their kids are born, how easy it is to buy a house, how long they sit in traffic, how much tax they pay, how good their health care is and so on.

Sometimes critics of social science make the argument that, sure, social science has value, but it’s just not as important as other kinds of science that might, for example, give us new medicines. This is also mistaken, and for this reason: You can’t have good science without good social science.

For example, we can do a lot to fight malaria with medicine, and we need new and better medicines to do so, but those treatments aren’t going to go very far in some developing countries — or at least as far — without more stable political institutions and more effective civil society organizations. Doctors in labs can create a miracle drug. However, that drug won’t do that much good if you can’t get it to needy populations because roaming militias set up roadblocks and kill aid workers.

If social and political scientists can figure out how to help create stable democratic institutions, how to help resolve civil wars, whether and how foreign intervention can help ameliorate conflict, etc., then they will help save lives — both on their own and in concert with other scientists who focus on new medicines, or more efficient cookstoves, or new ways to filter drinking water, or what have you. Federally funded research has made real strides in topics related to war and security.

But that still leaves an important question about trade-offs: Why should the government fund social science instead of other scientific disciplines? One answer is that it’s very hard to determine the value of any research ahead of time. Read Robert Putnam on this. It’s hard because any one research project is narrow. It’s hard because you can’t anticipate how one project might inform later ones. It’s hard because some funding goes to create public goods — like large datasets — that many others will use, and those myriad projects also cannot be anticipated. It’s hard because some research won’t work, and we can’t know which ahead of time. Even if the research did work, it’s very hard to measure its impact compared to the impact of other research in other fields.

For example, if a new drug extends the lives of patients with a particular kind of terminal, but rare, pancreatic cancer by two months, is that more or less valuable than research showing how to improve the reading abilities of thousands or even millions of children? You can’t answer questions like that very easily. And thus to say that entire fields of study deserve little or no federal funding but other fields of study deserve millions or billions of dollars reflects very little about the actual or potential real-world impact of those fields’ research programs.

Even a more nuanced claim is hard to test — for example, whether the impact of every dollar spent on medical research is greater than the impact of every dollar spent on social science. And although it would be better to stop choosing between very different fields, like “medicine” and “social science,” and just fund only the most promising medical research and only the most promising social science research, then we’re back to figuring out what is “promising” research before that research is conducted.

Members of Congress are perfectly within their rights — indeed, it is their job — to decide how much funding scientific research receives. Scientists are not entitled to federal funding any more than farmers or highways.

My point is simply that what political leaders seek to do, what good government seeks to do, is make the lives of citizens better. Social phenomena are central to the quality of our lives. Thus we gain from funding the social science disciplines that illuminate those phenomena.