Executive Director's Column

Growth for Science

Funding for research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences could also be diverted to basic physical science and engineering research. This would be a tragedy--not because "our" fields of science would suffer, but because the science our nation needs most urgently would suffer.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

In his State of the Union Address, President Bush last month proposed a new "American Competitiveness Initiative" aimed at increasing investments in basic physical science and engineering research. As part of this initiative, the NSF budget would double over the next 10 years.

It is always good news when the White House and congressional leaders talk about spending more money for science. President Bush got it right when he said that "our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hardworking, ambitious people.…" It was on this premise that he proposed the new initiative "to encourage innovation throughout our economy and to give our nation's children a firm grounding in math and science."

Most of us agree with the President that our best (perhaps our only) hope for cleaner energy sources and lowered dependence on oil depends on a significant investment in science and technology. Generally, it is true that much of the nation's economic strength derives from scientific advances of the past century.

Yet, as important as the President's new initiative is, I fear that it is too narrowly conceived. In many respects, it misses the boat entirely. For example, in a February 8 editorial, the Washington Post comments that "Mr. Bush's reasonable enthusiasm for the physical sciences should not come at the expense of the biological sciences." The Washington Post points out that trading an increased investment in some fields of science by cutting the investment in others is "a dumb trade-off."

Indeed it is. And it is not just the biological sciences that could suffer. Funding for research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences could also be diverted to basic physical science and engineering research. This would be a tragedy--not because "our" fields of science would suffer, but because the science our nation needs most urgently would suffer.

We do face an energy crisis, along with a myriad of other challenges for which the physical sciences and engineering may offer the solutions. We also face other crises--crises for which the physical sciences and engineering will never provide insight: Understanding the dynamics of drug use and addiction, getting at the underpinnings of cultural and interpersonal conflict, designing new technologies with the human user in mind, and learning how to promote positive mental health and treat mental illness. These challenges (among others) will not be resolved if we invest all of our resources in physical science, engineering, or biology. Our only hope relies on also ramping up the investment in social, behavioral, and cognitive science.

Even the President recognizes the challenge. He said that "we need to encourage children to take more math and science.…" To do that is going to require a better understanding of human motivation, emotion, cognition, and generally how people learn. We will not succeed if our education policy fails to incorporate what social, behavioral, and cognitive science can teach us in these areas. To succeed, the President's own initiative will depend on fields of science that reach beyond physical science and engineering.

The numbers we are seeing in the President's 2007 fiscal year budget, at least for NSF, appear to reflect a deeper appreciation for all fields of science. The budget for social, behavioral, and economic sciences would increase in roughly the same proportion as that for physical sciences. Let's hope that this is the real path the President intends to follow as the NSF budget is doubled over the next 10 years. If it is, then we all win.