Social science research funding 'is' America’s national interest

We recently had Nobel week, when Stockholm announced the winners of prizes in (amongst other subjects) medicine, physics, and chemistry. The awarding of Nobel Prizes is a chance for us to honor researchers who have changed our lives and to reflect on major discoveries across a range of scientific fields, both in America and abroad.

This week, here in the U.S., the debate about funding to the National Science Foundation (NSF) continues. The campaign to redistribute funding is led by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House’s Science, Space and Technology Committee, and it centers on NSF’s grants program in the social sciences.

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Smith’s objections to NSF’s social sciences program are based on two arguments. He suggests that the program is a waste of precious government resources, and that social sciences are not proper “science” and therefore not within the purview of a science foundation. He argues that the NSF should instead prioritize programs in the hard sciences and engineering, in order to maximize the economic benefits of NSF-funded projects. This, he argues, is in America’s interest, and so in addition to NSF’s current requirements of research –  that researchers demonstrate both the intellectual merit and broader impacts of the proposed research – Smith proposes that research must be certified as being in the national interest.

Social science is “science,” and is worth funding. It should be funded impartially, without reference to nebulous terms like “in the interest of the United States.”

How do we define phrases such as “in the interest of the United States” and “securing the national defense by promoting the progress of science”? Such phrases are so general that they are almost meaningless. All research can be misused, and all research might have benefits in the future that weren’t obvious at the time when it was developed. The discovery of penicillin, for example, was a fluke. And whose interest is “America’s interest”? What percentage of the population has to benefit before it counts as being in the national interest? Should we fund only research that benefits the whole population? Should we not fund research on prostate cancer because only 50 percent of the population could benefit?

And what about research whose “benefits” might not be immediately obvious from the grant title? Most people would probably rank a vaccine for Ebola as more worthy of funding than an anthropological study of disease perception. But a big part of why Ebola is such a problem now is that health workers failed to appreciate the psychology of epidemics and how fear spreads disease. They went in too hard, too fast, and caused panic, leading infected people to hide from quarantine officers or to flee to other regions, thus spreading the disease further and faster. And until very recently, how many people would have seen Ebola research as being in America’s interest at all?

Scientific results are often mediated by culture. That is, the finding might be universal, but we can only understand it in the context of language and society. A great example comes from the work of O’Keefe, Moser and Moser, the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine. They worked out how humans’ “inner GPS” system works, and how people keep track of direction neurologically. They discovered how brain cells keep track of direction. But we also know from work by Lera Boroditsky, John Haviland, and Lila Gleitman (amongst others) that speakers of different languages refer to directions in very different ways, and that the way we experience our environment --- and the cues we pay attention to --- are modulated by language systems. For example, Guugu Yimidhirr people from north Australia use compass points (“north”, “south”) where English speakers would use “left” or “right”; that is, they talk about “my south ear” rather than “my right ear.” My personal favorite for a system of this kind is the Bardi way of talking about directions that are “with the tide” or “against the tide,” since the reference direction reverses every six hours. Social sciences like linguistics and anthropology help us understand what findings like the “inner GPS” mean in practice. We may all create internal maps, but the features we place on those maps are culture-specific, and language-specific. Smith’s cuts to behavioral science funding would retain the maps, but remove the legends.

A current running through this debate is the idea that chemistry or engineering research is intrinsically more worth funding than social science research. It’s easy to take a cheap shot at grants to study rat massage, whereas it’s harder to ridicule “Superfluid Optomechanics” because it’s not clear to non-specialists what the grant might be about. But if we are talking about the benefit of research to the greatest number of people, surely it’s in our interest to understand how humans work, rather than sending another probe to Mars. Sending probes to Mars is cool, make no mistake. It’s rocket science, but it doesn’t make a big difference to many people’s lives. Understanding how people respond to incentives, or to depression, or to social inequality does make a tangible difference. It turns out, too, that results from the “rat massage” research have helped thousands of premature babies, and saved billions of dollars in health care costs.

Defenders of social science research are often accused of self-interest. As a recipient of NSF funding in linguistics since 2007, I could be placed in the same boat, since my access to research funds will clearly be impacted if NSF’s Social Sciences programs are reduced. But as a tenured professor, I will be impacted far less than the students I train, and the minority and endangered language communities whose languages I study.

As a recipient of public funds for research, I fully agree with Smith that the public has the right to know how their money is being spent. But the most effective way to do that is to engage with researchers and to make it easier for academics to talk about their research with the general public (for example, by making it easier to release results through open access publications). Having staffers dig through NSF files doesn’t make researchers more accountable, nor does it make research more accessible to the public.

Social science is science, and deserves support in the National Science Foundation. Non-criteria for funding like “the national interest” serve no one – not scientists, and certainly not the public.

Bowern is an associate professor of Linguistics at Yale and an Op-Ed Project Public Voices Fellow.

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