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Why Congressional Republicans want to cut social science research funding

House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) is not a huge fan of social science.
House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) is not a huge fan of social science.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.
  1. House Science Committee chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) is renewing his push to limit the National Science Foundation's funding for social science.
  2. This follows efforts in previous years by Smith and other congressional Republicans, such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and then-Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), usually targeting political science specifically.
  3. Those efforts briefly succeeded in 2013, when an amendment by Coburn limiting NSF political science funding to projects "promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States" passed.
  4. But that amendment was repealed in January.
  5. Social scientists insist that their work is vital, and the restrictions their opponents propose would hobble crucial research.

What's the Congressional Republican case against social science funding?

The biggest Congressional opponent is Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation through his role as chair of the House Science Committee. Smith most recently laid out his opposition to certain social science projects in an op-ed for The Hill:

I support continued funding for worthy social science research projects. But funding for social science should not come at the expense of areas of science – math, engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry and biology – that are most likely to produce breakthroughs that will save lives, create jobs, and promote economic growth.

Smith highlights grants for obscure-sounding projects focusing on foreign countries (such as one on the ancient Icelandic textile industry) as motivation, concluding, "How about studying the United States of America?"

Previous attempts to cut funding have focused disproportionately on political science, with proponents of cuts appealing to the existence of news media and other for-profit entities writing on political topics.

"Americans who have an interest in electoral politics can turn to CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, the print media, and a seemingly endless number of political commentators on the internet who pour [sic] over this data and provide a myriad of viewpoints to answer the same questions," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) wrote upon introducing an amendment to defund political science in 2009. "There is no shortage of data or analysis in this field that would require the government to provide funding for additional analysis."

How much exactly does the NSF spend on social science?

The National Science Foundation is the federal agency charged with funding all non-medical, non-military scientific research (the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense cover the rest). In fiscal year 2014 its budget totaled around $7.2 billion, far less than the $29 billion that NIH got.

A tiny share of that goes to funding social science. Of the $7.2 billion spent in FY2014, $256.85 million, or 3.6 percent, went to the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, which is responsible for supporting disciplines like psychology, economics, sociology, and political science. Political science specifically gets around $10 million annually. Spending on SBE (as the division is known) has grown faster than NSF funding as a whole, but not dramatically so:

nsf social science funding

(Social Science Space / Michael Todd)

The funding for SBE, $256.85 million, is about 0.05 percent of the $483 billion deficit in FY2014. So it's hard to argue for cutting social science support on deficit reduction grounds.

What have critics accomplished so far?

NSF critics' biggest accomplishment, after a number of failed attempts to restrict funding, was the passage of an amendment by Coburn in March 2013 restricting political science grants to projects "promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States." That significantly hampered the NSF's ability to fund political science projects.

That summer, the agency canceled a political science grant cycle less than a month before proposals were due; it didn't confirm that the cycle, usually one of two annually, was scrapped due to the Coburn amendment, but it's hard to imagine another reason. In November, it issued a "Dear Colleague" letter reminding potential applicants of the new restrictions, suggesting it was taking them seriously. The result was many applicants reframing their grant proposals to comply with the vague new terms.

But in January 2014, a new appropriations bill was signed reversing Coburn's requirements.

With Coburn retiring at the end of this Congress, Smith has taken the lead on attempting to restrict NSF funding, and has been pursuing his objectives by having staffers review dozens of past grants to find ones he deems unhelpful to the national interest, in what Science's Jeff Mervis describes as "an unprecedented — and some say bizarre — intrusion into the much-admired process that NSF has used for more than 60 years to award research grants." Staffers for Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the ranking member on the Science Committee, have also participated in the review to help rebut Smith's criticisms.

Smith also succeeded in passing an amendment to a House spending bill in June redirecting about $15 million in NSF funding from social sciences to natural sciences. But a spending bill including that amendment hasn't become law yet. Eighteen Republicans opposed the amendment, and Rep. David Price (D-NC), a former Duke political science professor, passionately inveighed against cuts on the House floor:

Smith also shepherded a bill cutting NSF social science spending to $200 million (a 22.1 percent cut from FY2014 levels) through the Science Committee. Before Democrats on the committee were able to add more funding, the cut was about 42 percent. That bill hasn't become law yet.

How do social scientists defend their funding?

The congressional assault on social science funding, and political science funding in particular, has provoked a powerful backlash by researchers. The American Political Science Association went so far as to hire lobbyists in the aftermath of the Coburn amendment's passage. Political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Casey Klofstad of the University of Miami released two papers noting that congressional support for political science funding cuts could be predicted by "the number of top-tier political science PhD programs in the senator's state and whether the senator graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science." In other words: members of Congress who actually understood what was at stake opposed the cuts.

There are specific programs, particularly in political science, that are often held up as examples of NSF funding going to good use. The American National Election Studies (ANES) are NSF-funded and represent the single best source of survey data on American voters' opinions, going back as far as 1948. The Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) is our single best data source on economic mobility, among the most hotly contested topics of political debate currently, and counts the NSF as a "major funding source." The NSF funds efforts to increase diversity in political science, which, like many academic disciplines, under-represents people of color. Coburn himself, in a remarkable display of chutzpah, cited NSF-funded research documenting a decline in congressional oversight in a report defending the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Penn State's Christopher Zorn notes that congressional meddling in the funding process threatens the integrity of peer review:

The idea that individual members of Congress should sit in judgment over individual programs of scientific research opens up the possibility of the politicization of the scientific process by people across the political spectrum. This is of course not limited to NSF: NIH, NIJ, DOD, etc. could all see their research arms’ funding compromised by legislators looking to make some political hay. Don’t approve of homosexuality? Defund Prevention Science at DAR/NIMH. Against contraception? Get rid of CRH at NICHD. And so forth.

Zorn's point is made more vivid by the fact that Smith's office appears to be looking into projects designed to study climate change. Smith denies the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human behavior.

Yale linguist Claire Bowern notes that the findings of "hard" sciences often depend on social contexts that we need social scientists to illuminate:

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.

Michigan political scientist Arthur Lupia, formerly principal investigator for the American National Election Studies, makes the further point that the private sector is unlikely to provide sufficient funding to social scientific pursuits, and even if it does, it will do so with an eye toward its own interests, rather than with an aim of producing impartial, rigorous research.

"It is difficult to know early on what the impact of research will be," George Washington University political scientist John Sides writes in an email. "Research that seems irrelevant or trivial may prove transformative. For that reason, I do not think combing through NSF grants looking for 'waste' is a fruitful way of improving the caliber of federally funded scientific research."

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