Presidential Column

NSF Defends Against Congressional Attacks

The recent actions by the House Science Committee, bringing into question the value of the Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation, should serve to remind all of us about the continuing need to communicate and connect with the public and opinion leaders about the value of investing in basic research. In its markup of the NSF authorizing legislation on June 28, the Committee told NSF to reduce the number of directorates by one, and included report language that made the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences the target for elimination. The Committee’s rationale seems to be that because this is the newest and smallest directorate, it must therefore represent the agency’s lowest priority.

This bill will be considered by the full House of Representatives. A companion bilI will eventually be considered by two Senate Committees, voted on by the full Senate, and then reconciled with the House version. The community needs to use this process to address the issues raised by our critics and make the case for the value of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences research.

Thus far the research community has worked hard to clarify the issues and make a strong case for continuing support for the social sciences. Efforts to undermine support for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences research come at a time when the community has made tremendous strides in demonstrating the importance of our contributions to advancing science.

NSF Action

NSF has maintained that support of social, behavioral, and economic sciences is integral to the agency’s mission. In a meeting with House Science Committee Chairman Walker and his committee staff we emphasized the NSF mission of supporting quality research in every area of scientific inquiry. Although we felt that we made real progress in explicating NSF’s genuine commitment to research in the social sciences, it has become clear that the problems we face cannot be overcome with mere reassurances and offers to respond to specific concerns.

The recurring nature of the battle for recognition of the validity and scientific rigor of research in the social sciences reinforces the need to keep Congress and the public continuously informed, not only about who we are as a research community, but also about why research is a worthwhile and important investment of public funds.

In the current budgetary environment, arguments to support a program of research cannot be based solely on the quality of the research. Lawmakers must also be informed about how lines of research are investments that can repay the cost of the research many times over. Not all areas of inquiry lend themselves immediately to this argument, but many do.

Doing More With Less

For example, at NSF we consistently strive for increased efficiency in our operations. In the past decade our budget has doubled and the workload has tripled while our workforce has actually declined. Much of this ability to accommodate more work with fewer people resulted from decisions to invest in information technology for our operations, while at the same time investing in research on computer hardware, software, and communications, as well as the application of networking in our programs. We have reinvented our internal processes continuously as the technology became more powerful.

At each step along the way, these changes can be related to research in the social sciences, research varying from the impact of linguistics on the development of computer language to the decision processes related to adopting new technologies. Unfortunately, little has been done to document the application of research, to quantify its effects, or to present a compelling narrative of the links among the various disciplines that have made these changes possible. These are not always easy tasks, but who should be more capable of tackling this problem than those of us trained in social sciences.

Members of the research community cannot count on others to make the case of the value of their work for them. It is incumbent on us to consider our research in terms of who uses it, how they use it, and the impact that it has on their lives. If we wish to remain a significant player in federal research, it is our responsibility to show that the contributions of basic research cannot be taken for granted and that they are relevant, important, and ubiquitous. This can be a tremendous opportunity for us.

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