Created by on 6/20/2011 12:00:00 AM

The House Science Committee Subcommittee on Research and Science Education recently held a hearing to examine the need for federal investments in the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences and to better understand the impact of this type of research and its value to the American taxpayer. In addition, the committee reviewed the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) fiscal year (FY) 2012 budget request.

Subcommittee Chairman, Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL) began the hearing by reaffirming his support for social, behavioral and economics research and stating that the purpose of the discussion was not to question whether these types of studies produce interesting and sound research. Brooks explained that the subcommittee intended to look at the need for federal investmentsin these disciplines, how policymakers determine what those needs are in the context of national priorities, and ways to prioritize funding for the social sciences within all science disciplines. He concluded his opening statement by mentioning the scarcity of federal research dollars noting that, “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.”
A broad range of witnesses addressed the impact of social and behavioral research and how these disciplines should be prioritized at NSF. While all said that SBE basic research can be worthwhile, they disagreed on the 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. She added, “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 sciences.” Dr. Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, discussed research funded through the NSF that focuses on politically-motivated areas. 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. 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 concluded his testimony by acknowledging that NSF funding for SBE should not be eliminated, but urged for “cuts to be made shrewdly.” Dr. Myron P. Gutmann, Assistant Director, Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences at NSF, provided an overview of the mission of SBE research at the agency, noting that these types of studies are especially useful to address problems that range from coastal flood response to preparing the military with the insights they need to understand behavior in a changing world.

The majority of the discussion following the witness testimony focused on the NSF’s FY 2012 budget request for the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. Several members of the subcommittee mentioned that the agency requested $301.1 million for FY 2012 which represents an 18 percent increase over the FY 2010 enacted funding level. Questions were raised about the need for such a dramatic increase, and the panelists debated the value of federal investments in these areas. A webcast of the hearing is available on the subcommittee’s website.