Report Says NSF Support of Social Sciences Vital to Nation

SBE value cover
Copies of The Value of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences to National Priorities: A Report for the National Science Foundation are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242.

The social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences make significant contributions to the National Science Foundation’s mission to advance health, prosperity and welfare, national defense, and progress in science, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. NSF should undertake a systematic and transparent strategic planning process that defines SBE research priorities, the required resources, and how success in addressing SBE priorities will be evaluated over time.

Although it is commendable that NSF consults with advisory groups and the broader scientific community to identify needs and opportunities in the SBE sciences, such as those outlined in its “Rebuilding the Mosaic” document, in the absence of a strategic plan, it is unclear how this input is combined and integrated in the agency’s SBE research priorities.

“Nearly every major challenge the United States faces — from alleviating unemployment to protecting itself from terrorism — requires understanding the causes and consequences of people’s behavior,” said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer emeritus, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report. “The diverse disciplines of the social, behavioral, and economic sciences produce fundamental knowledge and tools that provide a greater understanding of why people and societies respond the way they do, what they find important, and what they believe and value — which is critical for the country’s well-being.”

In addition, the understanding, tools, and methods provided by the SBE sciences — including research supported by the NSF — provide an essential foundation that helps other agencies achieve their missions, the report says. For example, NSF-supported research has provided valuable information about the patterns of behavior of hackers and the vulnerabilities of the nation’s cyber networks. These analyses served as the foundation for the development of tools and applications that contribute to military capability in current conflicts and the prevention of future conflicts, as well as to efforts to combat terrorism, which are central to the missions of the U.S. Department of Defense, intelligence agencies, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The SBE sciences have also provided advances applicable to business and industry and enhanced the U.S. economy, the report says. For example, social science methods such as polling and forecasting are routinely used to inform consequential business decisions related to marketing, customer relations, and product development. In addition, the original version of the Google search engine resulted from a formula developed with NSF funding in the late 1990s. Researchers recognized that the decision to link pages to each other required conscious effort and the need to reflect human judgment about the significance of the link’s destination, which led researchers to treat the collection of links as a network.

The NSF should continue to support the development of tools, methods, and research teams that can be used to advance the SBE sciences, facilitate interactions with other scientific fields, and help NSF and other agencies and organizations more effectively address important national needs. The report also includes recommendations for NSF to support training to prepare the next generation of scientists to be more data-intensive, interdisciplinary, and team-oriented, as well as to undertake more systematic efforts to communicate the results and value of the SBE research it supports and how NSF grants advance its mission.

The committee emphasized that it could not conduct an exhaustive review and analysis of all SBE research funded at the NSF in the time allotted, and as a result, the report does not claim that all SBE research serves the NSF mission or national needs.

In addition to Leshner, the committee membership convened by the NAS’ Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education included:

  • John S. Carroll, the Gordon Kaufman Professor of Management at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Ivy Estabrooke, executive director of the Utah Science, Technology, and Research Agency
  • Ralph M. Garruto, professor in the Department of Anthropology at Binghamton University
  • Kathleen Mullan Harris, James E. Haar Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina
  • Ron Haskins, senior fellow of economic studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at The Brookings Institution
  • Edward H. Kaplan, William N. and Marie A. Beach Professor of Operations Research and professor of engineering at the Yale University School of Management
  • Ronald D. Lee, professor emeritus of demography and economics, and professor of the graduate school in the Department of Demography at the University of California, Berkeley
  • Robert A. Moffitt, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics at Johns Hopkins University
  • Duncan J. Watts, principal researcher for Microsoft Corporation
  • Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California

Melissa K. Welch-Ross, a staff officer with e NAS directed the NAS working for the committee.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.

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