Lance R. Collins is dean of the College of Engineering at Cornell University and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
In a shortsighted effort to save money, Congress is moving ahead with a plan to cut investment in the social sciences. The America Competes Act under consideration on Capitol Hill would reauthorize funding for the National Science Foundation and other agencies that supply the financial lifeblood to engineering and the physical sciences. However, as passed by the House, the bill would cut the foundation’s funding for the social sciences by about half in order to direct more money to science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM disciplines.
As an engineer and an educator, I deeply appreciate our national policymakers’ recognition that funding STEM research can improve our national security, create jobs and enhance our economic competitiveness. But I disagree with the notion that the social sciences are not just as important for the same reasons.
In fact, the social sciences are more important today than ever — and if you doubt me, just look at recent news about how social media are taking the social science world by storm. Social media — those ubiquitous digital tools that can seem like toys — are changing cultures and governments around the world.
Researchers at several leading universities have begun looking at the role that social media messaging played in the Arab Spring protests, whose organizers used social media to get around government-controlled print and broadcast media, toppling governments and changing the Middle East before our eyes. Dramatically cutting social science funding would curtail such studies and deny policymakers a critical means of understanding political movements and uprisings around the world.
Furthermore, U.S. intelligence agencies use social science analysis extensively as a means to improve our national security. For example, FBI Director James B.Comey recently warned that some terror groups are increasing their reliance on social media to disseminate information and gain new recruits.
Social media were born in the world of computer scientists, who applied their skills and tools to solve the challenge of creating instant connectivity but could not have anticipated the social consequences of that connectivity. Now it would be foolish to ignore the impact of these rapidly developing technologies. Just look at what can be found in a simple Twitter feed: There is a flow of instant information, but that information is often encoded in ways that can require a social scientist’s perspective to decipher. We need to combine the tools of social science with those of computer scientists to “mine” the data for a true understanding of what it is telling us.
But the social science supported by the NSF extends far beyond social media. The foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences has a broad mandate to advance our understanding of the human condition — from the individual to how individuals interact and engage in commerce at small, medium and global scales. How could this understanding be deemed less important than any other STEM discipline? Yet, the current version of the America Competes Act would gut funding for research in these areas.
Consider the field of archaeology. Learning about past cultures, even ancient ones, is about much more than academic curiosity. Archaeology tells us why some cultures thrive while others collapse. Such lessons should be invaluable to all policymakers concerned about the future of the United States.
As an educator at a leading research institution, I know that the future will involve ever-increasing interdisciplinary research taking place across ever-widening intellectual landscapes. Decades ago, pioneers worked at the interface between the sciences and engineering. Today, we create links among science, engineering, economics, public policy, law and communications to address global challenges such as how to ensure plentiful energy, food and potable water is available around the world. Such problems require more than just technical solutions.
As Congress works its way through the reauthorization of the funding for the National Science Foundation, I urge our elected officials to pause and recognize the essential role of science — including social science —to our nation’s well being.
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