Science GRO plays offense and defense in wake of new congressional attacks on behavioral science

Science Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) characterized social and behavioral sciences as “the ‘soft’ sciences to distinguish them from the physical and life sciences”

The last month has seen renewed attacks on Capitol Hill on the legitimacy of the social, behavioral and economic (SBE) sciences and federal support for research in these disciplines. (Read about Senator Coburn’s attacks on social and behavioral sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in last month’s issue of SPIN). On June 2, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held an oversight hearing on the NSF’s SBE portfolio. Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) opened the hearing by saying that he was “particularly interested in understanding the NSF investment in these sciences, including the amounts asked for in the FY12 budget request and how those priorities were made. In an effort to be responsive to the American taxpayer, Congress needs to ensure that all federal funding decisions are wise and produce significant value for the Nation.”

Brooks went on to characterize SBE disciplines as “the ‘soft’ sciences to distinguish them from the physical and life sciences,” and he noted: “The goal of this hearing is not to question whether the social, behavioral, and economic sciences produce interesting and sound research, as I believe we all can agree that they do. I come from a social science background. I have a degree in political science and economics. Rather, the goal of our hearing is to look at the need for federal investments in these disciplines, how we determine what those needs are in the context of national priorities, and how we prioritize funding for those needs, not only within the social science disciplines, but also within all science disciplines, particularly when federal research dollars are scarce.”

Four witnesses were invited to testify at the hearing: Myron Gutmann, PhD, Assistant Director of NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE); Hillary Anger Elfenbein, PhD, psychologist and associate professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis; Peter Wood, PhD, anthropologist and President of the National Association of Scholars; and Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor in President George W. Bush’s administration.

In his testimony, Gutmann described NSF’s SBE research portfolio and highlighted NSF-funded basic research that has led to important progress in a number of domains related to economic and physical safety, national security, healthcare, and education. He pointed out that this basic research is often leveraged by more mission-oriented federal agencies and that the federal government plays a vital role in supporting research that is not of interest to corporate or foundation sponsors that have more limited and proprietary interests. Elfenbein, who reached out to other behavioral scientists and met with the American Psychological Association’s Science Government Relations staff to prepare for her testimony, spoke from the viewpoint of an individual scientist whose NSF-funded research has been singled out for de-funding (unsuccessfully) in the past by Members of Congress on the basis of grant titles and what Elfenbein called “political review over peer review.”

In contrast, Furchtgott-Roth strongly dismissed any need for federal investment in the SBE sciences and declared that NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate should be eliminated immediately. She maintained that any important research in these disciplines would be funded through private sector “industry, law firms and private foundations.” Woods stopped short of calling for the Directorate’s elimination and instead provided his own specific suggestions for “triage.” He proposed targeted cuts to and elimination of NSF programs in areas he claimed have been too closely tied to policymaking and “infected by post-modern ideologies,” including any related to sustainability, women and minorities, and dissertation support.
Members of the Subcommittee were given time to question the witnesses. From the Democratic minority, Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL), a social scientist himself and former Chairman, described the Subcommittee’s prior record in focusing on the critical role of SBE sciences in areas as far-ranging as national security, health, and disaster response. Other Democrats on the Subcommittee expressed concerns about political attacks on individual scientists sending “a chilling message” to students considering scientific careers and emphasized the vital role of SBE research in understanding the human dimension in national challenges. New freshmen Republican members Andy Harris (R-MD) and Dan Benishek (R-MI), who are both physicians, expressed strong concerns about NSF’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grants and highlighted peer-reviewed NSF-funded projects they considered “a waste of money,” often using examples first published by Sen. Coburn in his recent report.
A report on the hearing by journalist Jeffrey Mervis was published online by Science magazine on June 3. Despite Chairman Brooks’ relatively measured remarks during the actual hearing, his on-the-record answers to Mervis’ questions are deeply troubling to the SBE science community. When asked whether he supports calls to eliminate the NSF Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate, Brooks responded: “No, I have no predisposition on which direction to head. But if I had to prioritize, I think that basic science generates more economic activity, which in turn helps support all the other things we want government to do, than do the social sciences.” In a follow up question from Mervis about whether Brooks thinks that the “SBE [Directorate] is not funding the same kind of basic science that the rest of NSF funds,” Brooks answered: “I don’t know what you mean by the rest of NSF. But with respect to the hard sciences, I have a priority with respect to them.” Pressed to define what he meant by “the hard sciences,” Brooks said: “Physics, math, materials development, and, although this may be outside NSF’s portfolio, advances in health care. That’s hard science to me. And you can see more tangible results there. So the social sciences have a greater burden of proof.”

APA staff and colleagues from the Consortium of Social Science Associations met with Chairman Brooks personally on June 21 to express dismay that in his role as steward of federal support for the scientific enterprise, he had resurrected the untenable distinction between “hard” and “soft” sciences and suggested that social and behavioral sciences do not include "basic science." A followup letter (PDF, 141KB) was sent to Chairman Brooks and continued meetings with him and his staff are planned as part of the ongoing, multi-pronged approach to the attack within the current Congress on SBE sciences. This effort includes activating grassroots advocacy by the scientific community, leveraging support from other scientific and academic organizations and coalitions, capitalizing on media opportunities, monitoring legislation, and working to prevent and remove damaging bill language and amendments.