The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency created in 1950 by Congress to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense.” It uses its $7.2 billion to fund research via grants at the nation’s colleges and universities. The NSF is the major funding source of federal backing for (non-medical) scientific research. They are the only federal agency whose mission is to provide support for all fields in science and engineering (except medical science). They support those that ask questions and seek answers.
This includes social, behavioral, and economic research.
When I decided to study sociology in college, I did so believing that the knowledge I would gain would help further my understanding of the world around me. With my plans to be an actress and a writer, I knew that this was a crucial skill in order to tell stories. With a special focus on social-psychology, my degree has been a great foundation for my career. The social sciences include several disciplines such as anthropology, political science, economics and social philosophy. Sociology, which is the scientific study of human social behavior, uses all of these disciplines to understand the origins, institutions, and actions of people. As my passion for politics grew, I saw the value of my degree grow exponentially since understanding human behavior is imperative when determining social policy.
Republicans in Congress want to make sure there is less understanding.
Last year, Representative Lamar Smith was appointed chair of the House science subcommittee. The Republican majority on the committee are very anti-science. On the committee is also Todd Akin of Missouri, who famously said that women have a way of preventing pregnancy when raped and doesn’t believe in evolution. Rep. Lamar Smith, who hails from Texas, also doubts that human beings really have any effect on climate change – if there really is any climate change.
He also doesn’t feel that things like social sciences, or peer reviewed research is important.
Last year he introduced a bill that would dramatically reduce the NSF’s budget and change how it makes conducts its reviews of research proposals. Currently the NSF relies on a panel of reviewers who have demonstrated expertise in their respective scientific fields to review the merits of proposal. It is then peer reviewed by another group of scientists. The comments and recommendations from these two steps are then processed by two different divisions of the NSF, after which a final decision is made. While the criteria varies depending on the research, the NSF looks at research that supports “discovery, learning, research infrastructure and stewardship and provides an integrated strategy to advance the frontiers of knowledge” across all scientific disciplines. During the peer review process, they look at the “intellectual merit” and “broader impact” on scientific community and society.
Smith only wants to fund research that promotes economic growth – such as engineering and chemistry – and makes sure that all research is in the national interest by making the U.S. competitive in the global market.
The Social, Behavioral, and Economics (SBE) division of the NSF is a small portion of its $7 billion budget, but funds nearly three-quarters of all social science research in the United States. Its mission “seeks to enhance our understanding of human, social and organizational behavior by building social science infrastructure, by developing social disciplinary and interdisciplinary research projects that advance knowledge in the social and economic sciences.” The results of this research are often intangible. There are no cures for cancer or miracle drugs to combat heart disease. Instead the research focuses on trying to understand how we live and why we behave as we do. Past SBE funded research has looked at how to stop cyber bullying, eye-witness identifications, values and morality in global finance, and violence in rural communities.
The public benefits of this knowledge don’t necessarily directly affect the bottom line, but it can greatly influence public policy.
Perhaps that is why Republicans wish to put a tighter rein on the division.
By requiring that each individual proposal specify how it benefits the national interest ignores the nature of social science. There are many research projects that don’t seem to have an immediate purpose to the greater good. But as any social scientist knows, it’s the interdependence of all the individual elements that determine how a society works. It is not enough to understand the prices of goods to determine a minimum wage. It is also necessary to understand how people spend their money and how they process information to make their buying decisions. It’s important to understand how women exist in the world and live their lives when determining how to design a community or developing health and education policies.
Most importantly, politicians need this information to better serve their constituents.
The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST Act of 2014) was formally introduced in March of this year. After a year of comments, the bill has kept most of its original ideas of the draft introduced last year. It freezes the budget of the NSF for two years and requires Congressional approval of any of the NSF Director’s decisions.
It also includes a 40 percent reduction for NSF’s social, behavioral, and economic division.
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