Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have been supporting fundamental, basic research for decades. Across all disciplines, basic research has the potential to help us to better understand our world, societies, human behavior and relationships. All the while, this federal support of basic research has brought along with it scrutiny from policy makers who hope to dismiss projects they quickly deem “wasteful” while attempting to redefine the meaning of useful, merit-worthy scientific research.
For example U.S. Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House science committee, has been attacking social science research for years. He wrote to NSF on multiple occasions attacking dozens of individual NSF-funded projects that he considers to be wasteful of American taxpayer dollars. Our study found that roughly 52% of the projects attacked by Smith were basic research in Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. Rep. Smith also drafted a new bill which was passed by the House of Representatives on February 10th, 2016.
The bill states that NSF must provide written justification on how each selected award meets the standards of the “national interest,” defined in the repackaged bill through seven criteria. As you’ve probably guessed by now, the criteria favor Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) while deliberately excluding the mention of Social, Behavioral and Economic sciences (SBE). At this rate, can social science researchers satisfy this oppressive criteria? Is all research that seeks to explain the human condition, behaviors, trends, and effects really not serving the “national interest”? Who is setting the research agenda?
[Rep. Smith, just because you don’t like something, doesn’t mean it has no merit. I might be going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing basic scientific innovation and discovery is less likely to occur through legislative micromanagement and threats of public slander.]
On a related note, Senator Jeff Flake published his annual Wastebook – an approximately 300 page report that singles out individual, federally funded projects and ridicules them. Hmm, a singling out of “egregious, outrageous and unnecessary” government spending on SBE research projects… sound familiar? Anyway, guess who was featured in the twenty-third spot? Yours truly, of course. The Wastebook never bothered contacting us to check their facts or to get a statement.
But hey, we will give credit where credit is due. Senator Flake was correct about the funding source, the amount, and the location of our research project. One thing Flake got wrong was he suggested we investigate Tinder. Actually, we are not interested in limiting our research to any single platform like Tinder, rather our research focuses on users and their reactions to online dating technology.
So thank you for thinking of us, Senator Flake. You've given us the opportunity to defend our research and translate its value to the larger public. In the future, if you'd like to mention us again, please make use of our contact page where you can find our contact information if you wish to request information about our current research projects and focus.
Following this turn of events, our team conducted a content analysis of five issues of the Wastebook, published from 2011 to 2015. Our findings suggest that within the pages of the Wastebook, there was indeed a “singling out” of social science projects that was above and beyond statistical chance. U.S. Representatives are making their anti-social science attitudes heard, and it's a serious threat to scientific progress. In fact, last year, the Federal funding to SBE sciences remained flat, while several other NSF divisions saw an increase.
As a federally funded team, we are in a unique position to demonstrate exactly why and how that funding is being used to uncover knowledge, educate others, and create a better understanding of the human condition.
So what can you do?
Talk to your local representative about the singling out of social science research
Become an advocate of social science research
Disseminate social science research to the public
Lucky for us, the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) has done just that by creating a forum for social science researchers to respond to these attacks and to discuss the value of their research.
To read more on this topic, be sure to check out Dr. Stephanie Tong’s response to the attack in her interview with COSSA back in July. To keep up with our studies like those mentioned in this blog post, follow us on Twitter.