When Did Social Science Stop Being Worthy?


Vannevar Bush
Vannevar Bush (Photo: MIT Museum)

In the current wrangling over public funding of social science research being played out in the U.S. House of Representatives, two themes sound repeatedly among those who would taper the flow of money: social science research isn’t as economically valuable or as “high quality” as technological or medical research, and social science research can’t be justified  in austere times.

“Maybe these are things we might want to do,” suggested Dana Rohrabacher, a congressman from California who wants to cut social science spending, “if we had a surplus.” With the U.S. spending deficit topping a trillion dollars of late, the takeaway was clear – we don’t want to do these things.

In this case, “these things” were odd-sounding projects funded by the National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Science; Rohrabacher’s solution during markup of an authorization bill for NSF funding was to cut $50 million from the directorate’s budget, a 25 percent reduction on top of a $56 million cut already envisioned in the bill.

Such talk has stirred up the academic anthill, and a prescient paper, “Are sciences essential and humanities elective? Disentangling competing claims for humanities’ research public value,” in the new special issue of Arts and Humanities in Higher Education gives those ants some marching orders. (The full paper is available for free download HERE.)

AHH“In this paper,” write Julia Olmos-Peñuela and Elena Castro-Martı́nez, both with the Spanish Council for Scientific Research, and Paul Benneworth of the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, “we are concerned with the big question of whether humanities can be considered as a ‘luxury’ that cannot be afforded in times of crisis, elective rather than essential for innovation.” (“Humanities” is used as shorthand for both “humanities and social sciences” and “arts and humanities.”)

Their answer, perhaps not surprisingly given the source, is that humanities and social sciences do have value. But this benefit has been overlooked, they argue, because the metrics were rigged, intentionally but not spitefully, to favor more STEM-y outputs in the explosion of U.S. government-funded research following World War II. “The [physical] scientist’s contribution may be more tangible, but that does not make it more valuable,” the trio write.

[O]ur analysis highlights that there is no reason why humanities should be a priori less useful: they may be less useful in particular circumstances but that is partly a function of the users, including the research funders. Whilst the claim might be made that investing in sciences is closer to business, that claim is not a priori true: science research may appear to be closer to business, its connections may be more countable and more formalised, but they are not necessarily more numerous or ultimately beneficial. This means that a euro invested in sciences will not automatically boost economic growth (the assumed priority in crisis times) by more than a euro invested in humanities.

The authors explained that they set out to answer three smaller questions in the build up to their big question: Do arts and humanities disciplines contribute to socio-economic development? Does the output generated through their research have a public value? If arts and humanities have a public value, is it worth funding research in these fields?

The full paper details how they came to the generally positive conclusions, and outlines some ways to measure these benefits, but for now let’s look at their description of how science and social science separated, an issue with great bearing on the present debates.

Like so many examination of modern science policy, they start with Vannevar Bush and his consummate act of framing known as Science, the Endless Frontier. As World War II enveloped Europe Bush was director of the National Defense Research Council; a few months before Pearl Harbor he took over the new Office of Scientific Research and Development (the precursor to NSF). A sort of celebrity technocrat, he shepherded projects ranging from the mass production of penicillin to improvements in radar, from a working proximity fuze to the atom bomb.

The universal lesson drawn from these projects–in, remember, a somewhat apocalyptic setting — was the value of today’s utility over tomorrow’s jackpot. His most famous stumble was not funding a digital computer, based not on his opposition to the concept (which he clearly endorsed) but his feeling that the project would not bear fruit in this war.

This pragmatism filled Science, the Endless Frontier, his July 1945 report to the president on the government’s role in promoting scientific research after the shooting stopped. Here he didn’t reject the benefits of the humanities and social sciences, but he did question their immediate salience. Bush wrote in a letter to President Truman that accompanied the report:

It is clear from President Roosevelt’s letter [requesting the report] that in speaking of science that he had in mind the natural sciences, including biology and medicine, and I have so interpreted his questions. Progress in other fields, such as the social sciences and the humanities, is likewise important; but the program for science presented in my report warrants immediate attention.

As Olmos-Peñuela and her peers noted, “In Bush’s model, Federal funds for excellent research were allocated via peer review, to develop fundamental technologies to drive industrial development. In 1945, expediency dictated investments would focus on sciences in the first instance rather than the social sciences and the humanities.”

With the template set during the war under Bush’s tutelage, universities became the workhouses of research, and the immediate pay-off mindset of “academic science as an economic engine” took hold, initially in the United States and later more globally as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development pushed concepts that essentially made physical science research a commodity and a quasi-public good, both standards that less binary social science research found difficult to match.

Meanwhile, the OECD and the U.S.-based Association of University Technology Managers both started to measure economic output in ways the conflated easily obtained metrics like patents issued and income generated with societal value, making them the de facto yardstick to be applied to academic research.

These changes did not necessarily squeeze humanities research out of definitions of societal value, as long as the measures’ partiality was acknowledged. Indeed, academic and policy interest in ‘cultural industries’ can be identified since the 1970s, demonstrating a pluralist reading of the societal value of research – useful to national cultural endowment or promoting economic growth.

“However,” the authors write, “from the 1980s onwards that conceptual plurality withered away, framing universities as doing research with directly measurable economic benefits … effectively redefining universities’ social duties as undertaking activities which measurably contributed to economic development.”

From there, it’s a short hop to seeing disciplines that don’t generate these numbers as of little societal value, in short as low quality or a luxury.

The primacy of STEM is woven into the debate. For example, President Obama this morning celebrated young scholars at the White House Science Fair, an event that focuses specifically on promoting science, technology, engineering and medical research — because those disciplines are the obvious winners. But the outputs the president seeks involve a fair dose of humanities and social science:

As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as we do Super Bowl winners because super-star biologists and engineers and rocket scientists and robot builders, they don’t always get the attention that they deserve, but they’re what’s going to transform our society. They’re the folks who are going to come up with cures for diseases, and new sources of energy and help us build healthier and more successful societies.

A different yardstick, the authors suggest, in turn would provide a more useful measure of humanities and social science’s value for money.

That is by no means the whole basis for dismissing social science and humanities, and Olmos-Peñuela and company don’t suggest or imply that it is. When politics has a social agenda, social science inevitably gets tangled up in it. “Let’s be clear,” argued Rep Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democratic congresswoman who opposed Rohrabacher’s cuts, “the majority [party] included those provisions for one reason only — to cut funding for the kind of sciences they don’t like.”


Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

Skip to toolbar