Dueling Anecdotes in the Fight For Social Science Funding

As the kerfuffle over social science funding continues in the U.S. Congress, both sides of the debate trot out convenient anecdotes over past grants to either show what a waste of money many of these grants are, or how grants that could be deemed a little silly blossomed into important discoveries or innovations.

The anecdotes, whether the folly of studying old Andean jurisprudence or the genius of probing monkey brains, have been on full display over the spring as the House of Representatives discussed two bills that either authorized or appropriated money for the National Science Foundation, which pays for a majority of U.S universities’ basic research in the social sciences. Especially among those who oppose spending taxpayer money on social science (and in many cases, climate) research, new items to stoke outrage take a back seat to old favorites, perhaps suggesting either a paucity of material or a paucity of imagination in finding new tales to tell.

The authorization bill is heading for the House floor, where calendar constraints make it look increasingly unlikely the bill—known as the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology, or FIRST Act — will make it to the president’s desk. The appropriations bill, however, has exited the house and passed both subcommittee and full committee votes in the U.S. Senate, and is expected to be heard by the full Senate soon, perhaps as early as this evening. So far the dueling anecdotes have not been heard in the Senate, where the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations act (PDF here) , or CJS, has coasted along with almost no new amendments grafted on.


House GOP Officials Slap at Social Science Funding (May 29)

$50 Million SBE Cut Moves Forward to the Full House (May 28)

House Panel Wants to Strip That $50 Million from SBE Again (May 21)

Two Visions of NSF Funding Before House This Week (May 19)

NSF Funding Bill Report Includes Two Curious Items (May 7)

Largest-Ever NSF Budget Passes First Test (April 30)

National Science Board Critical of FIRST Elements (April 24)

NSF Boss Finds Friendly Reception in Appropriations Panel (March 27)

NSF Chief Presents Budget to House Thursday (March 21)

FIRST Bill Passes First Legislative Hurdle (March 13)

Social Science Advocates Uniting to Oppose FIRST (March 11)

How Much NSF Funding Goes to Social Science? (March 10)

Cuts to Behavioral and Social Science Funding Threatened (February 26)

There’s no guarantee it will continue to do so. In March 2013, for example, Senator Tom Coburn introduced a restriction on political science funding —it had to be certified as promoting national security or improving the economy– during the desperate fighting over a continuing resolution to keep the U.S. government running for the next sixth months. As Seth Masket noted at the time, “Political science, which receives roughly $10 million annually in NSF research support, was the only academic discipline singled out in such a way.” A Coburn-esque amendment, from the Oklahoma Republican or someone else in the GOP, could pop up this week.

Coburn’s sally, which did pass but which has since expired, was both unexpected and totally expectable, since two years earlier he’d produced his own list of the anecdotes known as The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope. That report was cited approvingly last month when the CJS appropriations bill was being debated on the floor and Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman from Arizona, introduced an amendment to mandate that all covered programs were “constitutional, appropriate, and sane.” (The amendment failed, not because Congress sought programs that were unconstitutional, inappropriate or insane, but because it transgressed what an appropriations bill could legislate.)

Looking through Microscope, Gosar said, Coburn “outlined a litany of wasteful, superfluous, and seemingly idiotic studies, some of which I will outline here.” A litany, in other words, of anecdotes:

There was a study on human reaction to popular baby names. There was a $580,000 grant to study racial preferences in online dating. There was nearly $1 million in multiple grants to study how rumors are started.

There have been nearly two decades of grants awarded to a certain panel in which the National Science Foundation has granted about $60 million. One of the panel’s studies covered how much housework a man creates for a wife in his household. There was a $90,000 grant to study the relationship between a researcher and their online avatar in virtual worlds and differences in their behaviors.

Since 2000, grants provided by the National Science Foundation have been used to study crustaceans running on tiny treadmills after being exposed to different microbes.

“Here we go,” retorted one lobbyist for the social sciences in an email during the hearing. “Rep. Gosar talking about Coburn report and listing wasteful individual grants. Shrimp on a treadmill are back!”

These little shrimp were also given tiny backpacks to weigh them down, so researchers could study test variables such as weight and resistance. In 2011, the lab said it planned to build treadmills and create studies for lobsters and blue crabs as well. This amendment would prevent these types of abuses.

There was a 2009 grant disbursed to the tune of $300,000, to study how humans ride bicycles. There was another $300,000, which actually came from the stimulus funds, that was disbursed to a married couple to travel to seven countries around the world to study stray dogs in an effort to discover how dogs became man’s best friend. Sounds like a heck of a honeymoon to me.

Of course, not all of those anecdotes focus on social sciences. And it can be fraught to attack odd-sounding technology grants which can spawn very real security or economic benefits. Say, did you hear last week about those gecko-inspired wall-climbing pads for American soldiers … So, there has been a subset of attacks specifically on grants emanating from the National Science Foundation’s directorate for social, behavioral and economic sciences, known as SBE.

Here, Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Science Committee, has a standard set of what he considers questionable grants in his quiver. After saying that “much of the research funded through the SBE directorate has obvious scientific merit and is in the national interest,” Smith offered his chestnuts:

But the SBE directorate has also funded dozens, perhaps hundreds, of questionable grants. For example, when the National Science Foundation pays a researcher more than $227,000 to thumb through the pages of old National Geographic magazines to look at animal pictures, taxpayers feel as though the NSF is thumbing its nose at them.

The NSF also spent $340,000 for a study of human-set forest fires 2,000 years ago in New Zealand. Americans who have lost their homes and businesses to wildfires could ask how this helps them. Taxpayers can’t help but wonder why NSF spent $1.5 million of their money to study rangeland management in Mongolia rather than, say, in Texas.

These are the same examples, used repeatedly in press releases and op-eds from Smith’s camp, which often also include mentions of the $160,000 grant to study “oppression and mental health in Nepal” or $152,000 to look at the regulation of China’s dairy industry. (Remember melamine?)

I also want to point out the SBE directorate isn’t the only source of questionable NSF grants. For instance, NSF that handed out $700,000 for “The Great Immensity,” a climate change musical, and $5.6 million for a climate change scavenger hunt and phone game.

The National Society of Black Physicists — a nice bit of interdisciplinary support, that — has come to the defense of “The Great Immensity” on Twitter, citing (umm, Canadian) (umm, social science) research that shows artistic performance “is more effective in communicating research findings”  in many cases.

That climate change musical gets a lot of mileage. Eric Cantor, the soon-to-be-former House majority leader, brought it up in his only remarks during the two-day CJS markup. But it’s not all fun and games, he prefaced, “I have been troubled that the administration has been spending scarce federal resources allocated to the National Science Foundation, not on these hard sciences, but instead on political and social science research, including, for example, the attitude of Americans on the filibuster, studying ‘what makes politics interesting,’ and how politicians change their Web sites.”

Researchers have stories, too

Perhaps having honed their chops during the days of William Proxmire and his Golden Fleece awards, the research community and its defenders have their own anecdotes ready to deploy, and through programs like the Golden Goose Award, and beavering away to gather new ones. The most visible social science story-teller on the Hill is Chaka Fattah, a Philadelphia-area congressman, ranking member of the House CJS Appropriations CJS subcommittee, and a vocal advocate of brain research. One of his favorite anecdotes this spring has been a brain-related projected in his home state:

I was at the University of Pittsburgh. I saw some results of National Science Foundation funding that started out 30 years ago that a Member on this floor would be on the floor complaining about now. It was the examination of what happens in the neurons of a monkey when they move their arm, what neurons fire off in their brain.

Well, that research today, 30 years later, literally has a woman who, because of a disease, has no control of her body, but can now move an artificial arm through her thoughts. This is the result of research by the National Science Foundation. It is the world-premiere basic science foundation; it is the model for our economic competitors. They are imitating it.

Rush Holt of New Jersey, a rarity in Congress since he’s a trained scientist, offers a different sort of anecdote, the rare one that highlights the other side’s bad anecdotes. During the House CJS hearings last month, he recalled: “A prominent politician recently ridiculed NSF-funded research in fruit flies or game theory. Obviously, she didn’t understand that one of the principal biological organisms that has been studied is Drosophila, which is the so-called fruit fly.” (Actually, the study Sarah Palin criticized wasn’t Drosophila but Bactrocera oleae, which terrorizes the olive industry. Holt’s swat still holds, though.)

But Holt had a more traditional anecdote in waiting:

It would be easy to ridicule a study that I saw described not long ago in library science, which was funded by the National Science Foundation. It just so happens that it turned out to be the basis for what we now know as Google. Yes, that research was done with taxpayer money, and it could have been ridiculed as foolish, as a waste of taxpayer money, but I think the country’s economy has benefited, maybe several thousand times over–maybe many thousands of times over–the amount that was spent on that ‘foolish’ research on library science.

The same hearing saw David Price of North Carolina, a political scientist still on the faculty at Duke bring the freshest anecdotes to the contest. (He also brought the best factoid: “I simply note that nearly a quarter–that is 50 of 212–of the Nobel Prize winners in science funded by NSF since 1951 were recipients of funding from the SBE program. Every winner of the Nobel Prize in economic sciences since 1998 has been an NSF grantee.”)

I wish my conservative colleagues would spend as much time learning the facts about the programs they deride as they do in preparing the flurry of floor amendments and floor speeches to target them.

Helping policymakers make informed decisions is what NSF’s Political Science Program (PSP), in particular, is all about. Let me just say a word about the SBE’s Political Science Program, which is close to my heart by virtue of my previous life. The PSP has consistently produced valuable, practical research that informs policymakers and government agencies on issues as vital as natural disaster response, environmental regulation, and foreign policy. Here are a few examples.

NSF’s Political Science Program helps us gain a better understanding of public reactions to natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, which was researched at Rice University, as well as to the BP oil spill, which was researched at Louisiana State University. It has helped Federal, State, and local authorities develop more effective evacuation and recovery plans. It has supported research on the causes and consequences of terrorist attacks, at Pennsylvania State University and at UNC-Chapel Hill; on competition for natural resources as a driving force in international conflict, research at the University of Georgia and at the University of Colorado; on third-party peacemaking, research at the University of Notre Dame; and on dispute resolution mechanisms that lead to lasting peace, at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa.

That peace-making study came from a NSF grant to Notre Dam’s Kroc Institute for research by Erik Melander, John Darby and Peter Wallensteen looking at how intervention by third parties can help end civil wars. Given the skirmishing on social science funding between the two main American political parties, perhaps it’s time to stop citing anecdotes and start learning from them.


To read one of the articles produced by this research on civil wars, published in the journal Conflict Management and Peace Science, click here

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