Witnesses Assess Value to the Taxpayer of Federal Spending on Social Sciences

Jun 2, 2011
Witnesses Assess Value to the Taxpayer of Federal Spending on Social Sciences

Washington D.C. – Today the Subcommittee on Research and Science 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.  A broad range of witnesses addressed the impact of this type of research and how these disciplines should be prioritized at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Noting that federal research dollars are scarce, Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) said, “In an effort to be responsive to the American taxpayer, Congress needs to ensure that all federal funding decisions are wise and produce significant value for the Nation.”

The main support for basic research in the (non-medical) social and behavioral sciences comes from the NSF, accounting for approximately 58 percent of federal support for basic research at U.S. colleges and universities. In some fields, including archaeology, political science, linguistics, and non-medical aspects of anthropology, psychology, and sociology, NSF is the predominant or exclusive source of federal basic research support.

Within NSF, the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) has requested $301.1 million for FY12, representing an 18 percent increase from FY10 enacted funding levels. Members and witnesses today questioned the need for such a dramatic increase, and debated the value of federal investments in these areas.

While all of the witnesses said that SBE basic research can be worthwhile, they disagreed on the relative priority and value to the taxpayer of federal spending in these areas.  “The question at issue is not the quality of this research, but whether the federal government should fund it,” said Ms. Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.  “During this time of shrinking federal dollars, when our debt is over $14 trillion and our deficit this year is projected at $1.6 trillion, the NSF should focus on basic physical and life sciences research rather than research in the social, economic and behavioral science.”

Several witnesses also highlighted research funded through the NSF that focuses on politically-motivated areas.  Dr. Peter W. Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, acknowledged that NSF funding for SBE should not be eliminated, but urged for “cuts to be made shrewdly.”  He said a small portion of NSF funding “is diverted to trivialities or is channeled to programs on the basis of their political appeal rather than their scientific merit.” Dr. Wood highlighted several examples of NSF grants that are motivated more by policy debates than by basic science.  One example he mentioned was the drastic budget increase for the SBE portion of the Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability portfolio at NSF.  The FY12 request for this area represented a 174 percent increase over FY10 enacted levels.  “When the NSF funds such policy-oriented research, it is on the road to making policy on its own—in fields far beyond science,” Wood said.

The following witnesses testified today before the Subcommittee:

Dr. Myron Gutmann, Assistant Director, Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, National Science Foundation

Dr. Hillary Anger Elfenbein, Associate Professor, Washington University in St. Louis

Dr. Peter W. Wood, President, National Association of Scholars

Ms. Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute