THE BLOG

The Folly of Defunding Social Science

03/15/2013 10:56 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2013
  • Scott Atran Director of Research in Anthropology at France's National Center of Scientific Research

With the so-called sequester geared to cut billions of dollars to domestic programs, military funding, social services, and government-sponsored scientific research -- including about a 6 percent reduction for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation -- policymakers and professionals are scrambling to stave off the worst by resetting priorities. One increasingly popular proposal among congressional budget hawks is to directly link federal funding of science to graduate employment data that seriously underestimates the importance and impact of social sciences to the nation at large, in order to effectively justify eliminating social science from the federal research budget. For example, federal legislation introduced by Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), would require states to match information from unemployment insurance databases with individual student data and publish the results, which would show earnings by program at each institution of higher education. But educators and economists note that measuring return on investment via salary alone is too simplistic: liberal arts majors often start out at lower salaries but make more than their peers in later decades. Even more worrisome, in the guise of practicality, such maneuvers offer up a not-so-veiled attempt to justify eliminating government funding for the social sciences, perilously underestimating their importance and impact to the economy and national welfare.

In a major speech last month, Eric Cantor, the U.S. House majority leader, proposed outright to defund political and social science: "Funds currently spent by the government on social science -- including on politics of all things -- would be better spent on curing diseases." Cantor's call to gut the federal research budget for social science echoes Florida governor Rick Scott's push to eliminate state funding for disciplines like anthropology and psychology in favor of "degrees where people can get jobs," especially in technology and medicine. Targeting the social sciences with little understanding of their content is an old story for legislature looking to score cheap political points. The late Sen. William Proxmire (D-Ark.) used to scour the titles of NSF-funded projects in psychology and anthropology, looking for recipients of his Golden Fleece Awards without bothering to examine the results of the research he myopically pilloried. Such shenanigans ignore the fact that social science research provides precise knowledge that is relevant to people's practical needs and the nation's economic and security priorities. Most government laws, programs, and outlays directly concern social issues, including the establishment and means of government itself, and the need for law enforcement, military capabilities, education, and commerce.

Gutting social science also undermines national security. For, despite hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars poured into the global war on terrorism, radicalization against our country's core interests continues to spread -- and social science offers better ways than war to turn the tide. Moreover, social science is in fact moving the "hard" sciences forward. For example, recent research based on social science modeling of cancer cells as cooperative agents in competition with communities of healthy cells holds the promise of more effective cancer treatment. Those who would defund social science seriously misconstrue the relationship between the wide-ranging freedom of scientific research and its ability to unlock the deeper organizing principles linking seemingly unrelated phenomena.

The Founding Fathers envisioned a Republic with an enlightened citizenry educated in "all philosophical Experiments that Light into the Nature of Things ... and multiply the Conveniences or Pleasures of Life" -- not just technical training for jobs that pay well.


For more, see today's article in Foreign Policy

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