The House of Representatives seems determined to stall this country's innovation pipeline for generations to come. Two pieces of recently passed legislation — the America Competes Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806) and the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2016 (H.R. 2578) — take aim squarely at the National Science Foundation's Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate. The Competes Act authorizes a 50-percent cut, while the appropriations bill directs resources away from social science into other disciplines. Gutting funding for social and behavioral science research in favor of other scientific research exhibits a key misunderstanding of today's emerging research areas, which are increasingly interdisciplinary in practice.


As the dean of Cornell University's College of Arts & Sciences, I see firsthand how the social sciences help us to understand and address key public issues concerning health, immigration, social mobility and economic opportunity. The recent fight against the Ebola virus is a case in point. While medical technologists came up with interventions to contain the virus that looked effective on paper, at times they proved ineffective on the ground — underscoring the importance of anthropologists who reveal the role that culture plays in structuring community health practices.

Likewise, while we need astronomers and engineers to build the instruments with which we can explore Mars, without the input of social scientists it's unlikely the astronauts will ever make the journey successfully. Psychologist Bruce Halpern has worked with biologists, engineers and computer scientists on a six-month experiment to understand how to keep astronauts nourished and healthy on a three-year Mars mission.

The contribution of social science research is also critical in this age of big data analysis, helping to prevent disasters from teen suicides to terrorist attacks. Cornell sociologist Michael Macy uses computational models and other techniques to examine the spread of social contagions such as self-destructive behavior and high-risk social movements. Can we afford to cut off such crucial science?

Research universities, like Cornell, feed innovation on a 30- to 40-year arc. When properly funded, basic research results in a steady pipeline of ideas and approaches that can guide the development of new methods, technologies and instrumentation to help solve the greatest challenges of every subsequent generation. It's necessary research with a public purpose and it's a key innovation feeder for hugely successful private industries that have kept the U.S. competitive in the global marketplace. Private industry cannot weather the risk involved in this kind of long-term research; thus public funding is a necessity.

Both the Competes Act and the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill would cut this interdisciplinary innovation pipeline off at the knees. How can we design cities effectively or adequately plan for genetic policy without understanding the social, psychological and economic ramifications?

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields are not just technological and scientific domains — they are affected by social and historical factors. A shortsighted approach to research funding drives a wedge between disciplines when the problems we're collectively working to solve require interdisciplinary solutions. If we go "all in" on only a few areas of research, everyone will lose.

Ritter is the Harold Tanner Dean of Cornell University's College of Arts and Sciences.