Making the (Funding) Cut: The NSF, Anthropology, and the value of social science

Social science research isn’t on the firmest ground in these days of economic malaise, but it’s not like this news is exactly exploding into the headlines across the nation.  Funding cuts, like the recent “trimming” of the Fulbright program,* seem to take place somewhat under the radar.   The same can be said of the recent debates about the value of social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences that took place about a month ago in a congressional hearing on June 2, 2011 (this link has PDFs of the introductory statements and the testimony of all the witnesses).  The social sciences face an uphill battle, in part, because some folks see them as mere “soft sciences” that do not merit public support.  The House panel subcommittee meeting was about assessing the relative merit of the social sciences and how federal funding should or should not be allocated to researchers.  Did you hear about this?  Well, I didn’t–at least not until just a few days ago.  Funny what can happen in the middle of the summer, isn’t it?  Anyway, here’s a recap of what went down according to a summary from the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA):

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) chaired the panel, which included the testimony of four witnesses:  Myron Gutman (Assistant Director for NSF’s SBE directorate), Hillary Anger Elfenbein (Olin School of Business at Washington University, St. Louis), Peter Wood (President of the National Association of Scholars), and finally Diana Furchtgott-Roth (Senior fellow at the Hudson Institute).  Here’s how Brooks described the basic purpose of the hearing:

The goal of this hearing is not to question whether the social, behavioral, and economic sciences produce interesting and sound research, as I believe we all can agree that they do. I come from a social science background. I have a degree in political science and economics. Rather, the goal of our hearing is to look at the need for federal investments in these disciplines, how we determine what those needs are in the context of national priorities, and how we prioritize funding for those needs, not only within the social science disciplines, but also within all science disciplines, particularly when federal research dollars are scarce.

Brooks’ language sounds cool, rational, and impartial.  However, according to journalist Jeffrey Mervis:

Brooks may have been pulling his punches. In comments to ScienceInsider after the hearing, Brooks expressed serious doubts about the value of the social sciences. The freshman legislator said he “understands the value of basic research” because his constituents in and around Huntsville, Alabama, make up “one of, if not the most, highly educated districts in the sciences.” Brooks did say that “my priorities would be to protect basic research in the sciences as much as possible, even to the extent of cutting entitlements, in order to generate enough funding for basic research.” But his definition of the term “basic research” turns out to be synonymous with the so-called hard sciences, and to exclude the social sciences.

Gutman, for his part, argued in defense of NSF funding for social science research.  From the COSSA report: “[Gutman] provided many examples of how SBE research has served the nation including research on human actions and decision making, terrorism, artificial speech, matching markets and kidney transplants, spectrum auctions and the importance of protecting social networks in disaster situations.” Elfeinbein, who is a psychologist by training, also provided testimony about the value and applicability of of social science research.  She discussed the applicability of her own research for business, the military, medicine, and education.  When asked why SBE science is important for science in general, the Federal government, and the American taxpayer, Elfeinbein stated (from the PDF of her actual testimony):

The social and behavioral sciences in general are important because technology, health, industry, and politics are ultimately in the hands of people–who behave rationally and irrationally.  The learning and implementation of all other sciences depends on the human factor.

That is certainly a point that many anthropologists would agree with.  Up next was the anthropologist in the crowd, Peter Wood.  His position was that “the SBE sciences should not be x-ed out completely from the budget of the NSF or other federal agencies.” However, Wood did say that he thinks a small percentage of SBE funding goes to what he called “trivialities and politicized programs.” Wood laid out a “triage” approach to cutting the SBE NSF budget, which he explained in more detail a few days later in a post he wrote for the Chronicle of High Ed called “How to Save the Social Sciences.”  Wood’s first point was that there is plenty of funding sources that are non-governmental, so NSF funding isn’t all that necessary.  His second point: there are already too many SBE PhD’s, and the NSF is making the situation worse by continuing to fund them.  His third point of this triage is where things start getting a little dicey.  Wood advised the panel to:

Pay attention to the rise of anti-scientific ideologies within SBE disciplines. In my field of anthropology, for example, the recent controversy over the attempt by the Executive Board of American Anthropological Association to jettison “science” from the AAA’s mission statement is a pertinent example. Should NSF fund “social science” research in fields that reject the paradigm of scientific investigation?

Take the time to read the COSSA report, and Wood’s version of his testimony.  I don’t know all that much about Peter Wood, and I really do not understand why he would characterize anthropology like this.  It makes no sense to me.  Look, I am not going to over-editorialize here, but I do not think this was the most judicious way of representing the discipline of anthropology, especially in a House hearing.**  Regardless, Wood wrapped up his testimony with some very specific suggestions about funding cuts:

  1. Cut that $57-million sustainability-education program. It appears to be nothing but ideology dressed up to look like basic science.
  2. Cut funding for economics. Alternative funding for research in economics is abundant.
  3. Cut funding for social-science dissertations. It is perfectly possible for graduate students to complete dissertations while supporting themselves.
  4. Cut every program that is designed to advance women and minorities in the social sciences. Women and minorities are seldom disadvantaged in these fields, and anyway it isn’t the task of the National Science Foundation to engage in social policy.
  5. Cut the NSF’s “RAPID” program. This is the funding mechanism that NSF uses to allocate support to programs that it deems in need of immediate support and which can’t wait for the normal peer-review process.

Furchtgott-Roth, who is a former Chief Economist at the Department of Labor, was the last to provide testimony.  Her  argument about NSF funding for SBE sciences: CUT IT ALL. Why?  According to the COSSA summary, she said:

Since “social, behavioral and economic sciences research does not fit the conditions that define it as a ‘public good,'” […] it should receive no funding from the Federal government, particularly NSF. She indicated that Foundations were a source that SBE scientists could use and since Smith, Marx, and Keynes all conducted their research without government support, so could today’s economists and other social scientists.

She does acknowledge the value of SBE research, but there is an important caveat: “There is much outstanding work produced every year in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences.  It fills journals and working papers and is presented at conferences.  The question at issue is not the quality of this research, but whether the federal government should fund it” (Furchtgott-Roth testinomy).  She then goes on to argue that there are plenty of private foundations with plenty of funding, and that if the federal government does indeed fund SBE research, the NSF is not the right place.  Lastly, when asked if SBE research “advances the physical and life sciences,” she flatly said no.  Furchtgott-Roth’s conclusion about federal funding and social science was this:

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 science.

We all know that more funding cuts are probably coming, and that things aren’t going to be getting better anytime soon.  This makes it all the more imperative that anthropologists pay attention to the ways in which anthropology–and social science in general–is understood by and represented to the wider public.  This includes congressional committees that make funding decisions, often with limited understanding of the breadth and depth of anthropological work.  From the cuts to the Fulbright program, to this recent panel hearing, to Senator Tom Coburn’s recent report on the NSF, it’s clear that the social sciences are under fire.  This isn’t exactly a new story, however: similar cuts were apparently proposed for NSF social science grants back in 2007, but those were successfully defeated.

On July 12, the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a press release that speaks to these very issues:

More than 140 scientific societies and universities today sent a letter urging U.S. policymakers, in their need to cut spending, to avoid singling out specific programs—such as the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences—and to refrain from bypassing independent peer review.

The letter, routed to key lawmakers who are preparing to debate the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012, opposes any attempts to eliminate or substantially reduce funding for particular research programs. Defunding specific grants or entire scientific disciplines “sets a dangerous precedent that, in the end, will inhibit scientific progress and our international competitiveness,” the group warned.

While the Society for Anthropological Sciences is a part of the letter, the American Anthropological Association is curiously absent.  I’m not sure why.  Regardless, it would probably behoove the anthropological community to become a more active–and vocal–part of these discussions.  Silence, in this case, is certainly not golden.


*About a month or so ago, Kerim wrote about the cuts to the Fulbright program here on Savage Minds.

**Peter Wood wrote about the #AAAFail controversy on the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  For comparison, check out Daniel Lende’s summary of the whole ordeal, here.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

15 thoughts on “Making the (Funding) Cut: The NSF, Anthropology, and the value of social science

  1. Ryan et al.: Not sure if you’re aware of this (in which case I’m sorry for overexplaining) or if this is the sort of thing only we hopeless Washington insiders know, but when picking witnesses for hearings the majority party gets to pick 3 and the minority gets to pick 1. In this case, Brooks and his staff got to set the agenda for the hearing by stacking the deck with witnesses who’d make their case for them. (As you saw, Brooks even jade the luxury of softening his own stance in his statement, because he was sports confident his viewpoint would be represented!) This accounts for the selection and testimony of Furchtgott-Roth (a scholar at a conservative think tank) and Wood. Frankly, it’s surprising that two witnesses defended funding, and I wonder if Gutman or Elfeinbein was expected to take a harder line and ended up disappointing Brooks’ staff.

  2. Ryan, you seem to take exception with Peter Wood’s statement, “Should NSF fund “social science” research in fields that reject the paradigm of scientific investigation?” Do you think NSF should fund research that is explicitly anti- or non-scientific? Or do you disagree with his painting of the entire discipline of anthropology as anti-scientific? Such a view, whether accurate or not, is common outside of the discipline. Other social scientists think that anthropology is hopelessly interpretivist, hardly worthy of the label “social science.” The AAA science controversy certainly plays into this kind of thinking.

    Anthropology has a major PR problem, much of which stems from our inability to explain to others what we do and why it is important. It’s not surprising that Peter Wood and others say things like this about anthropology.

  3. @ckelty:

    Thanks for the Brooks link. That guy is hard to figure out sometimes.

    “I don’t know how seriously to take this yet (beyond the signing of petitions or the sending of emails) since this seems to be a rather periodic event in congress…”

    I don’t know either. That was part of the reason why I posted it–to see what people had to say about all this.


    Actually, I didn’t know all of that, but it makes sense. Ironic how a hearing works out like this, with a stacked deck and all. Thanks for the insider info about this–it helps make things a bit more clear.


    “Do you think NSF should fund research that is explicitly anti- or non-scientific? Or do you disagree with his painting of the entire discipline of anthropology as anti-scientific?”

    The latter. I definitely think that his characterization of the discipline of anthropology is inaccurate. There are lots of anthropologists out there, including biological anthros, linguists, cultural, and archaeologists. Calling the entire group “anti-science” is pretty ridiculous. Of course some are more humanistic, and some are more on the science side. To me, this is a source of pretty fascinating possibilities. I like the different facets and perspectives in anthropology, personally. And I definitely do not think that the discipline as a whole is somehow “anti-science.” That’s just a strange statement by Wood.

    In reality, I think Wood takes issue with the work or ideas of specific anthropologists and strains of anthropology. I get it that he has a beef with po-mo anthropology, but I think he’s overdoing it here.

    “Such a view, whether accurate or not, is common outside of the discipline. Other social scientists think that anthropology is hopelessly interpretivist, hardly worthy of the label ‘social science.'”

    It is a common viewpoint, even though it’s not really accurate. And that’s something that anthros need to deal with more effectively in the future.

    “The AAA science controversy certainly plays into this kind of thinking.”

    Agreed. That was a complete debacle, and it was not handled very well at all. Still, I do not really think that event was somehow indicative of the proclivities of anthropologists on the whole. So I don’t think it was the best evidence for Wood to bring up in a congressional hearing. But then, maybe he had his reasons, I don’t really know.

    “Anthropology has a major PR problem, much of which stems from our inability to explain to others what we do and why it is important.”

    I definitely agree with you about this. It amazes me that so few people outside of the discipline really know what anthropologists–of all stripes–actually do. Whose fault is that? Ours. So that means we have to do something about it. This event is a case in point for why PR matters. Anthropologists seriously need to work on explaining what it is they do, and why their work is important. We’re definitely on the same page with the anthro PR issue, Michael.

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

  4. @michael e. smith, who asks “Do you think NSF should fund research that is explicitly anti- or non-scientific?”

    That question might not be relevant, since the issue is what the NSF wants to fund — and the NSF explicitly funds anthropological research that IS scientific. The former director of the cultural anthro program was notorious for insisting on this, and even created the summer methods program to help anthropologists get a better sense of what that would entail. Most of our graduate students for years have fretted over whether their dissertation proposals are “scientific” enough for the NSF. My impression is that it might not matter what the bulk of the profession does: NSF will fund that small portion that is more explicitly ‘science’.

    (And speaking of which, it’s not entirely clear to me how much of theoretical physics — string theory, for example — escapes the same charge of being mere “interpretation”. I’m not sure that this characterization alone disqualifies anything from being scientific…)

  5. Hello! A smear campaign has been going on. People must reiterate over and over again (every teacher knows that you have to repeat things) the AAA did not reject science. Please read the discussion of what in fact was said by the Executive Committee. The smear campaign that repeats and repeats that the intent of the changes was anti-science needs to be countered. All the rest of the commentary is irrelevant if this point is not made.

  6. “He calls mainline cultural anthropologists on a lot of their sanctimonious and unexamined received truth. He’s also an entrepreneurial contrarian. ”

    Well, browsing that page, he seems like a grumpy old man, shaking his cane from the porch while spouting movement-conservative talking points. OMG the environmentalists are going to stick us in concentration camps!

    What does “entrepreneurial contrarian” mean, exactly?

    It’s sad to watch the knives come out for the NSF like this — I’ve always envied the integrated approach to sciences funding that the U.S. has, versus Canada’s division of natural vs. social science funding (and conflating social sciences with humanities, and engineering with natural science). Practically, this creates huge problems for people like geoarchaeologists — people who ask anthropological questions using geophysics techniques such as GPR, GPS, isotopes, etc.

    I know at least one such scholar who seems to have no trouble getting published, recognized and even celebrated — everywhere but in the mainline Canadian funding agencies because each of them think that she’s the other agency’s problem.

  7. Basically, trying to decide which research is “useful” and which isn’t, a priori to the peer-review process of individual projects, is extremely short-sighted since increasingly, disciplinary labels are inadequate to characterize research.

    That said, the same bullpuckey is happening up here. The idea is that politicians, rather than scholars, will decide whether large areas of research are likely to generate patents and economic activity and then dictate funding decisions to the agencies.

    To mangle some old American fellow: “Those who choose economic applicability over scientific value will end up with neither”.

  8. What does “entrepreneurial contrarian” mean, exactly?

    What I mean to say is that it is hard for me to believe that there is not a certain amount of awareness on his part that he gets something professionally out of being the guy who disagrees with the party line, particularly when the party line styles itself as counter-hegemonic to socially and politically conservative values. Or, as you put it, “shaking his cane from the porch while spouting movement-conservative talking points.”

  9. Ryan: I have no idea how you figured out that comment, which was typed from a very new smartphone and thus (I see now) riddled with autocorrect errors. But kudos! And thanks!

  10. @Barbara Piper:

    “That question might not be relevant, since the issue is what the NSF wants to fund — and the NSF explicitly funds anthropological research that IS scientific.”

    Good point, Barbara. I am one of those grad students who is in the middle of writing grants, and the NSF certainly has a reputation for being the most explicitly “science” oriented.

    @Michael Fischer:

    “People must reiterate over and over again (every teacher knows that you have to repeat things) the AAA did not reject science.”

    Ya, apparently more reiteration is in order, considering Wood’s argument here.

    @Andrew Galley:

    “The idea is that politicians, rather than scholars, will decide whether large areas of research are likely to generate patents and economic activity and then dictate funding decisions to the agencies.”

    This is what I find pretty disturbing–the sole focus on economic production rather than knowledge. So this leaves little room for critical research that challenges certain practices or assumptions, since it won’t result directly in economic activity or production. If it doesn’t create jobs or revenue, it’s out. Not a good situation.

    @Dara: I figured that was what was happening with a couple words! Thanks again for the insight!

  11. @Michael Fischer – Perhaps I am naive or unobservant or not very smart, but it sure looked to me (and many others) like the AAA board was seriously downplaying science, if not rejecting it outright. Personally, this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, leading me to resign from the AAA. Now maybe I am wrong. Perhaps the AAA board was trying somehow to strengthen its commitment to science, or maybe simply trying to avoid science to talk about other things instead. But regardless of their intent, the action certainly generated a widespread perception, both inside and outside of anthropology, of an anti-science move. And this is just the kind of thing that gives anthropology a bad name among the social sciences, and the kind of thing that plays into the hands of people like Peter Wood and others who want to cut anthropology at NSF.

  12. Michael: Hugh Gusterson gave what to me was an entirely satisfactory account of how the whole “#AAAfail” affair was an administrative afterthought and or oversight that was blown out of proportion.

    Maybe that makes it worse for people already frustrated with the tone and character of the AAA in recent years. A more measured response from upset parties does seem like it would have been more productive for the discipline, though.

    (And look, I understand the importance of symbolism as much as the next anthropologist, but did people really think that the AAA long range planning statement was going to have material (perhaps irreversible!) effects on the discipline? These things get extruded out of committee meetings all the time and then rightfully and appropriately discarded and ignored. It’s just a shame that didn’t happen this time.)

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