Science Directions

On Aug. 9, President Bush signed into law The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act. Better known as the America COMPETES Act, this legislation included a reauthorization of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

An ominous direction

In its penultimate draft, Title VII of the bill called upon the NSF director to "give priority in the selection of awards and the allocation of Foundation resources to activities that can be expected to make contributions in physical or natural science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, or that enhance competitiveness or innovation in the United States."

Missing from the list of priority areas was all of the social and behavioral sciences: sociology, political science, economics, anthropology and psychology. This was very troubling because the language could be used to justify a reduction--even the elimination--of NSF support for social, behavioral and economic sciences.

Exclusion of the social and behavioral sciences was not a surprise. For the preceding year and more, proponents of the President'sCompetitiveness Initiative had deliberately sought to dismiss these fields as irrelevant to the initiative's goals and undeserving of federal support.

Indeed, the intellectual inspiration for the competitiveness legislation was the National Academy of Sciences recent report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Also known as the Augustine report, it clearly recommended that investments increase in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics and information sciences, but not in the life sciences or the social sciences.

A better direction

Differences between the House and Senate versions of the pending America COMPETES Act were being worked out in July. There was little hope that the fundamental list of scientific priorities would change. In fact, there was little expectation that anything at all would change at that point. At the very last moment, however, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) introduced an amendment proposing the insertion of the words "social sciences" after "engineering."

These two words changed the entire direction of the bill. Instead of being silent with respect to the social sciences, the NSF director would be called upon to give them priority in the selection of awards and allocation of resources. Instead of dismissing these fields as irrelevant, the bill would signal that the social sciences can actually help to enhance our understanding of competitiveness and innovation.

The amendment prevailed! It was accepted by the conference committee and remained in the final bill signed into law by the president in August. With the addition of those two words--social sciences--our prospects for NSF support were dramatically improved.

Why those two words?

Some in the research community of psychology might quibble with use of the term "social sciences" to include psychology. Many want to maintain some degree of separation between social and behavioral science, and may have preferred that behavioral science be recognized specifically in the language. According to this view, the inserted phrase should have been "social and behavioral sciences," or just "behavioral sciences." To some, it may feel that the behavioral sciences--most notably psychology--are still being excluded.

These differences in meaning are important to us. They help to define who we are and what we study. Yet, to most people, the differences in meaning are minor. The terms are often used interchangeably. In the halls of Congress, the social sciences are understood to include psychology along with dozens of other disciplines and specialties.

Psychology may aspire to a greater public understanding of what our discipline is about--the problems we address, the methods we employ and our unique contributions to solving society's great challenges. One day, everyone will understand the distinctions we make among social, behavioral and cognitive sciences. And we should devote ourselves to achieving such understanding.

It is neither necessary nor productive, however, to seek distance from an identity with social science. Instead, we should embrace it and celebrate our inclusion in it. Psychology may indeed be a new and distinct branch in the evolution of science. Yet, it is our connection to social science that gives psychology its greatest value in the public eye.