Why am I not surprised?
Senate Panel Chair Asks Why NSF Funds Social Sciences
Why is the National Science Foundation (NSF) funding a study of a women's cooperative in Bangladesh? Why are U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for efforts to understand Hungary's emerging democracy? And why are social scientists even bothering to compile an archive of state legislatures in a long-gone era when those legislators chose U.S. senators?
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), chair of a panel that oversees NSF and a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, put those and other sharply worded questions to NSF Director Arden Bement last week during an unusually combative hearing on the agency's 2007 budget request. Hutchison signaled that she will be taking a hard look at NSF's $200-million-a-year social and behavioral sciences portfolio, which funds some 52% of all social science research done by U.S. academics and some 90% of the work by political scientists. Hutchison made it clear during the 2 May hearing that she doesn't think the social sciences should benefit from President George W. Bush's proposal for a 10-year doubling of NSF's budget as part of his American Competitiveness Initiative (Science, 17 February, p. 929). And she suggested afterward to Science that she's open to more drastic measures.
"I'm trying to decide whether it would be better to put political science and some other fields into another [government] department," she said. "I want NSF to be our premier agency for basic research in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering. And when we are looking at scarce resources, I think NSF should stay focused on the hard sciences."
Last week's hearing was not the first time Hutchison has taken a shot at NSF's support of the social sciences. In a 30 September 2005 speech honoring the winners of the annual Lasker medical research awards, she backed a doubling of NSF's budget but added that social science research "is not where we should be directing [NSF] resources at this time." Hutchison tipped her hand a few months before the hearing by asking NSF officials for abstracts of grants funded by the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) going back several years. But the harshness of last week's attack caught the community by surprise, leaving social scientists and their supporters scratching their heads about how best to respond.
"In some ways, it's SBE that tackles the most challenging scientific questions, because its research investigates people's behavior and touches on the most sensitive issues in our society," noted Neal Lane, a physicist and former NSF director now at Rice University in Houston, Texas. "So I'm not surprised that it's been hard to articulate how it connects to innovation and improving the nation's competitiveness." Aletha Huston, a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, who wrote a letter to Hutchison before the hearing defending NSF-funded work by herself and colleagues at UT's Population Research Center, points out that "if you want to understand how to remain competitive, you need to look at more than technology, … at the organizational and human issues that play a role."
Hutchison says she hasn't decided how to translate her concerns into legislation. One option would be to limit spending for the social sciences in the upcoming 2007 appropriations bill for NSF. Another approach would be to curtail the scope of NSF's portfolio in legislation enacting the president's competitiveness initiative or reauthorizing NSF's programs.
In the meantime, says sociologist Mark Hayward, who heads the UT population center, it would be a mistake for social scientists to ignore her concerns. "We have to be persistent and consistent in our message," says Hayward, who along with Huston hasn't heard back from Hutchison. "We can't just say, 'My goodness, she's not paying attention.' "
And people say we don't need public sociology. Folks, if we don't convince the public that sociology contributes something vital to their world, we're going to be in a world of hurt.