U.S. House Subcommittee Takes Aim at NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate

June 8, 2011

By Paula Skedsvold

Two years ago this month, then-Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor, sent a letter to President Obama offering proposals to reduce the deficit, specifically suggesting that the Administration “refocus the National Science Foundation on the hard sciences.” Now in control of the House, calls to refocus NSF research on the hard sciences seem more ominous.

Rank and file members are now leading the charge, however. Last week, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), a new member of Congress and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Research and Education, held a hearing “to examine the need for federal investments in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) and to assess its value to the American taxpayer.”

Rep. Brooks’ opening statement sounded neutral on the question of SBE sciences: “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.” However, in an interview with Jeffrey Mervis of “ScienceInsider” following the hearing, Rep. Brooks explained that his priorities were in basic research which he apparently viewed as synonymous with the “hard sciences.”

Four witnesses addressed the Subcommittee about the relative priority and value of federal spending in the SBE sciences.

Dr. Myron Gutmann, Assistant Director for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences at NSF, described for the Subcommittee how awards are made and priorities established within SBE. The bulk of his written and oral testimony described specific examples of how SBE research is benefitting the U.S. taxpayer.

During the question period, Dr. Gutmann responded to a range of questions from Subcommittee members including whether funding for SBE sciences could be replaced by other non-government sources; whether review occurs for rapid grants; why the Administration requested a large increase for SBE in FY 2012; and how SBE draws the line between transformative and interesting research.

Also invited to testify was Ms. Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an economist and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. She acknowledged in her written testimony that “there is much outstanding work every year in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences…. The question at issue is not the quality of this research, but whether the federal government should fund it.”

Ms. Furchtgott-Roth went on to say that, in her judgment, “NSF should focus on basic physical and life sciences research” given the lean federal budget, and she added that universities, private foundations, corporations, law firms, and other government agencies could easily replace NSF funding for SBE basic research.

During oral comments, Ms. Furchtgott-Roth suggested other cost-cutting measures for NSF such as funding only grants that generate new data and ensuring data entry is done by research assistants.

The Subcommittee also invited Dr. Hillary Anger Elfenbein, Associate Professor at the Olin School of Business, Washington University in St. Louis, to testify. Dr. Elfenbein described her research on emotion recognition across cultures and its applications to the military, business, medicine, and education.

“My own personal experience with the political review of federal grants highlights the importance of not judging a book by its cover,” Elfenbein stated in her written testimony. She described for the Subcommittee how her research had been targeted in 2007 by a first year member of Congress and recommended for defunding “because he thought it sounded silly.” Three months prior to the recommendation to cancel NSF funding for the grant, the Army Research Institute had identified the research as having practical applications for the military.

Dr. Peter Wood, an anthropologist and President of the National Association of Scholars, expressed the need for NSF to “triage” research funding and offered six suggestions including eliminating NSF funding for research that informs policy issues or research in “non-science” areas such as “transforming education” or “ethics.”

Dr. Wood was critical of the debate within anthropology about whether the field is a science and what he sees as the rise of “anti-science ideology.” However, he went on to say that he did not see evidence of these ideologies in the proposals that NSF has funded. “A great deal of NSF funding in the SBE disciplines goes to projects that are intellectually worthy,” he stated.

Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) described the importance of the SBE research in contributing to disaster response, building resilient organizations, and understanding decision making processes. Lipinski commented that he once took a class from Amos Tversky in the psychology department because he wanted to understand how human make decisions.

Of particular note were the comments of Rep. Clarke (D-MI) who stated: “We know what the problem is [with the debt]; it’s not SBE research! It’s because our health care system is a system of disease management, not prevention. Your research will help us get there.” Rep. Clarke added, “Don’t feel apologetic for asking for money,” adding that the federal government has been supporting the private sector for years.

View a webcast of the hearing »