On 2 June, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing to examine the need for federal investments in social, behavioral, and economic sciences. The hearing considered the role of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) in funding basic research. NSF provides about 57 percent of federal support for basic research in the social and behavioral sciences at colleges and universities.

Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) said: “The goal of this hearing is not to question whether the social, behavioral, and economic sciences produce interesting and sound research, as I believe we all can agree that they do…. Rather, the goal of our hearing is to look at the need for federal investments in these disciplines, … and how we prioritize funding for those needs, not only within the social science disciplines, but also within all science disciplines, particularly when federal research dollars are scarce.”

Not all Republican members of the panel seemed to agree with Chairman Brooks’ assertion about the value of SBE research. Representative Andy Harris (R-MD), a medical doctor by training, questioned the need for research to study the impact of the economic stimulus or for NSF’s Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability program. Rep. Dan Benishek (R-MI), also a medical doctor, asserted that millions of dollars of research funding has been wasted on questionable projects and that it’s unreasonable for the SBE budget to grow by 18 percent in fiscal year 2012, as the Obama Administration hopes. For FY 2012, President Obama requested $301.1 million for SBE.

Dr. Myron Gutmann, Assistant Director of SBE, adamantly defended his division. In his testimony, Gutmann cited numerous examples of achievements that resulted from social science research supported by NSF. For instance, NSF has supported 43 Nobel laureates in economics. Other dividends from NSF-funded research include the development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), matching systems for kidney transplants, and spectrum auctions that have generated tens of billions of dollars for the U.S. Treasury.

Other witnesses appearing before the subcommittee disagreed on the need to prioritize SBE research. “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,” said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Dr. Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars - a conservative group - alleged that some funding decisions made by NSF, such as regarding sustainability, were politically motivated.

 


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