Social science funding at NSF

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A couple of years ago, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) had a dumb idea. He proposed an amendment that would have eliminated social science funding at the National Science Foundation. The amendment was soundly defeated, but 36 senators voted in favor of the Coburn amendment.

In late May, Coburn returned and upped the ante. He released a report accusing NSF of mishandling nearly $3 billion. Of course, he was wrong. I can't link to all of the posts explaining why, but you'll find some a few of the more relevant links at the bottom of this post.

In Friday's New York Times, David Brooks does a good job of explaining why "[t]his is exactly how budgets should not be balanced -- by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits." You should go read the whole thing for yourself, but here's how it starts:

Over the past 50 years, we've seen a number of gigantic policies produce disappointing results -- policies to reduce poverty, homelessness, dropout rates, single-parenting and drug addiction. Many of these policies failed because they were based on an overly simplistic view of human nature. They assumed that people responded in straightforward ways to incentives. Often, they assumed that money could cure behavior problems.

Fortunately, today we are in the middle of a golden age of behavioral research. Thousands of researchers are studying the way actual behavior differs from the way we assume people behave. They are coming up with more accurate theories of who we are, and scores of real-world applications. (emphasis added)
Scientific research often sounds funny because the technical detail needed for full understanding requires years of training. Coburn1 doesn't provide the context for the funny-sounding research he describes. When you know the context, it sounds a lot less funny. In fact, it sounds pretty important, and you can often imagine real-world applications quite easily.


1And William Proxmire before him.