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Why Social Science Research Matters | Commentary

Social, behavioral and economic science research has become the punching bag for many conservatives. In February, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told an American Enterprise Institute audience, “Funds currently spent by the government on social science  . . .  would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.”

Cantor’s declaration echoed a call from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to defund the National Science Foundation’s SBE research programs. The senator finally won his two-year battle in March, when his colleagues adopted an amendment to the 2013 continuing resolution prohibiting the NSF from supporting political science research projects not certified as “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

Following on the heels of Coburn’s success, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, targeted five SBE grants for congressional scrutiny, with an implicit warning that the NSF directorate was out of favor with many of his colleagues.

The drive to eliminate SBE funding, which is likely to resurface when the NSF appropriations bill hits the House floor this month, is puzzling because lawmakers rely on the products of such research every time they run for office. They spend heavily on public polling that is based on social-science research. They use jobs data and gross domestic product forecasts that are based on economic research. And they base their messaging on the products of behavioral research.

In short, they are heavily invested in the very research they are slamming. And from that perspective, their attacks reflect badly on the high offices they hold.

With polls showing voters’ trust in government at a historic low, it is politically seductive to ferret out programs whose worth the public may not understand or whose outcomes may not fit neatly into party ideology. Targeting them for a quick journey to oblivion might allow incumbents to score points in the next election, but such attacks make for terrible public policy.

And that brings me to the troubling nature of the attacks. First a caveat: Decades ago, I chose physics over economics because I was uncomfortable with a soft science that was better able to analyze the past than predict the future.

I still harbor that prejudice. But years of work in both physics and politics wore away my sharp-edged bias, as I came to appreciate the vital nexus between scientific research and science policy. Eliminating SBE research would undermine that linkage.

Here’s why: Today, the federal government spends more than $65 billion a year on scientific research that industry can’t or won’t perform. Such support in years past spawned the Internet and e-commerce, the laser-enabled technologies that account for more than a third of the GDP, the guts of the iPad, reliable and efficient cars, our modern military machine and the medical diagnostic and treatment procedures we have come to take for granted.

Science can lay claim to the discoveries that underpin those applications, but policy informed by SBE research — from regulatory practices to taxation and trade — helped provide a level playing field on which American industry could thrive and from which the American consumer could reliably benefit.

Understanding complex systems, the essence of SBE research, is extraordinarily difficult but also enormously significant. Predicting how our military adversaries are likely to behave is as important as developing the next generation of weaponry. Forecasting how people living in tornado alleys are likely to respond to storm warnings is as important as improving the science of forecasting the weather. And projecting how the public is likely to use the health care system is as important as creating lifesaving drugs and treatments.

Despite such obvious benefits, critics of SBE programs have asserted that they provide few societal returns and are rife with examples of frivolous research. But there might be a more insidious reason for such opposition: a conviction that SBE research outcomes will not conform to conservative ideology.

Such reflexive behavior would not be unique: There are examples of office holders in both parties who cherry pick scientific results to validate their policies. Some Democrats who believe global warming is a serious threat have asserted that Superstorm Sandy was evidence of climate change, even though there is no credible scientific proof for such a claim. Some Republicans who believe the earth is only 9,000 years old have stridently rejected the entire body of astrophysics that quite conclusively shows the earth’s age to be about 4.5 billion years.

Science can and should inform policymaking, but it must never be the “tool” of policymakers. Elected officials who don’t make such a distinction don’t understand the essential nature of science. And their ignorance can harm us all.

Michael S. Lubell is a professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.