Don’t Rob the Social Sciences of Peer Review and Public Dollars

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

March 31, 2014

Legislation making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives would significantly reduce National Science Foundation funds for the social sciences and interfere with the agency’s peer-­review process. The alarming proposal, known as the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act of 2014, or FIRST Act, threatens to dismantle social- and behavioral-science research in the United States.

Under the bill, Congress would, for the first time, fund each individual directorate in the NSF rather than the agency as a whole. As proposed, every directorate would see its budget increase or stay essentially flat, with the exception of the directorates for social, behavioral, and economic sciences and for international and integrative activities. Those directorates would experience a 25-percent and a 17-percent decrease, respectively.

Backers of the legislation argue that public support for scientific research should be concentrated in areas that drive economic growth, and that they know with some certainty what those fields are—biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering, and mathematics. With its more than $7-billion annual budget, the NSF is one of the larger funding sources for researchers. While the social, behavioral, and economic sciences’ budget represents a modest share of that total, almost two-thirds of all federal social-science research support comes from the science agency.

Rep. Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas and a champion of the bill, has argued that the American public has no interest in supporting research in the social and behavioral sciences unless it can be shown to contribute directly to U.S. national security or domestic job creation. I agree that the federal government has to operate with fiscal responsibility, but it is ill advised to leave it to partisan Congressional politics to predict the likely societal payoffs of investments in scientific research.

The truth is that the public benefits of basic social-science research go far beyond jobs and national security. They include smarter decisions about investing in schools and social programs, procedures for regulatory and clinical guidelines, commercial development of products and processes, and encouraging consumer behavior for improved health and safety. Other benefits are less waste and more-sustainable resource use, social-welfare gain and national economic benefit from commercial development and user-friendly design, environmental quality and sustainability, improved international balance of trade, and energy independence.

Scientists recognize that those contributions do not come from a single research project and that there is often no immediate payoff. They also recognize that those facts should not be equated with an absence of scientific merit. That is why it is so troubling that, as part of this legislation, "accountability" criteria would be added to the expert peer-review process.

Peer review at the National Science Foundation normally judges the scientific merits of individual grant proposals. Meritorious projects are then assembled into a diverse portfolio of research that the agency funds. Just as with any sort of investment, the wisdom of the portfolio approach in making research grants resides in how it maximizes the rewards that come from a diverse range of open-ended inquiries.

As approved in a recent subcommittee markup, however, the proposed bill would require that each individual research grant be certified as serving the national interest, rather than leaving that determination at the portfolio level.

That proposed level of micromanagement is inappropriate, and goes hand-in-hand with the politically motivated Congressional cherry-­picking that we have seen frequently in recent years. It has become great sport, through websites like the majority leader Eric I. Cantor’s YouCut, to fixate on exotic-sounding project titles, which appear on the surface to indicate little promise of a practical payoff.

For example, Representative Smith recently criticized the science agency for awarding grants to study how auto­mobiles are marketed to consumers in China, a country of almost 1.5 billion people who are literally choking on their newfound consumer power. China is worth further study because it can provide detailed observations that gain us a better understanding of what fuels changing consumption. Such a study may also provide American industry with valuable information about business opportunities in China.

Another study he criticized is one focusing on 17th-century Peruvian legal papers. That work appears quite promising, as it aims to establish through empirical means a basis for determining how courts and the legal systems in different countries may have softened or accentuated the injuries and injustices perpetuated by legalized slavery. In a world where the balance of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government is quite different from country to country, historical studies can help us understand, in an impartial, empirical fashion, the impact that courts have had in setting social policy.

It is unwise to assume that research projects, to be considered worthy of public support, must have a clear and direct path to a direct practical application. The path is usually indirect, building on the accumulation of insight, often drawn from a deep reservoir of knowledge available for discovery and innovative application in unexpected ways. Peer review takes those judgments about the return on scientific investment out of the realm of politics and places them where they belong, in the realm of advancing human understanding, so that such understanding can be applied to tackling the world’s most pressing problems.

The FIRST Act does not serve the public interest, either through its fiscal attack on social-science research or through its weakening of peer review. Anyone who has an interest in strengthening the nation’s social- and behavioral-research capacities should urge his or her member of Congress to do better when it comes to science and education.

Edward Liebow is executive director of the American Anthropological Association.