Why Congress should fund social science

"Cosmos," the fascinating television series, tells us not only about science, engineering and mathematics but also its history. In one episode, Neil deGrasse Tyson tells the story of how, during the 17th century, the Royal Society in England funded Hisotria Piscium, a groundbreaking (at the time) book on the history of fish. When the book failed to sell, the financial loss was so severe that the Royal Society had to withdraw its funding for printing Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy") which gave us the three laws of motion and other important discoveries.

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Did the Royal Society leadership know that Newton's book would become one of the most important works in all of history while the fish book would fail? Of course not. No one can predict what will or will not be revolutionary science, engineering and mathematics research.

Some members of Congress today, however, seem to think differently. They believe it is possible to pick winners and losers, and identify one area of research, namely social science research, that they believe will not produce research in the "national interest," and as a result, society should not fund it.

What exactly is social science, anyhow? The National Science Foundation defines it as research "directed toward an understanding of the behavior of social institutions and groups and of individuals as members of a group.” Social sciences include anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, linguistics, socioeconomic geography and research in education, history and the impact on society of legal systems and practices. One of the nation's earliest social scientists was Benjamin Franklin, who studied U.S. population growth and the political and economic ramifications of that growth.

What do we also know? Many of the challenges facing today's society are behavior-related. Let's take as an illustration the field in which I work — energy. As a nation, we care about energy because of its impact on the economy, energy security and the environment. What can social scientists tell us about energy?

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences in its report, "Beyond Technology: Strengthening Energy Policy through Social Science," provides six examples:

  1. Behavior and decision-making: Analysis indicates that 20 percent of energy in the residential sector could be reduced with no- or low-cost behavioral interventions that require no lifestyle changes. For example, the "cash for clunkers" program was successful while those focusing on existing homes retrofits were not. Social science research can tell us why and how to incorporate those lessons into policy.
  2. Public acceptance of new energy technologies: New energy technologies often face social issues such as privacy, equity and individual rights. For example, the acceptance of offshore wind power and smart meters depends on public acceptance. Social science research can tell the steps necessary for a successful public dialogue.
  3. Incorporating behavior in policy analytic tools: Energy-economic modeling used to inform public policies does not always include the behavioral sciences. For example, high-efficiency lighting can save consumers money, but the public does not always take action even though they are saving money. Social science research can tell us why and improve these tools so better information is provided to policymakers.
  4. Policy durability and adaptability: Energy technology is constantly changing, challenging the ability to develop long-lasting policies. For example, the cost-effectiveness of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards developed in the 1970s decreased due to the development of new technology. Social science research can identify ways to build durability and adaptability into policy.
  5. Federalism: Energy policy is politically complex with actions taken by the federal government, regions, states and localities. For example, combined heat and power plants are more efficient than large, centralized generation facilities, but can be challenging to implement due to exclusive service territory statutes. Social science research can identify these challenges and propose options to respond.
  6. New and updated regulation: As our energy system changes, so do the regulations that govern it. For example, carbon capture and storage will require new regulations addressing issues, such as who can use the deep geological formations necessary for the technology. Social science can tell us how to incorporate cost-effective and innovative technology into regulation.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson says: "When I see people cherry-picking science in the service of their belief system, I think to myself, they don't really know what science is. So we have to work harder to teach that — not teaching them that they're wrong, but teaching them what science is. When they learn what science is, they'll understand why they're wrong, and arrive at that conclusion on their own." We can only hope that this optimistic view is correct as Congress votes on this year's appropriations bills that fund social science.

Stine is associate director for policy outreach at the Scott Institute for Energy Innovation and professor of the Practice, Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.