NSF and eliminating funding for the social sciences

NSF funding for the social sciences is under threat.  Hillary Anger Elfenbein, orgs scholar at WashU, testified before Congress on this matter, but she needs some help (orgheads might have answers to her questions).  Here’s an email that she sent around on the OB listserv (posted with permission).

Dear Colleagues,

As many of you may know, there have been recent suggestions by Republican members of the U.S. House and Senate to eliminate NSF funding of the entire slate of Social, Behavioral, and Economic (“SBE”) sciences—which includes organizational behavior and related disciplinary research in psychology, sociology, and economics.

This is chilling for our field.

I recently testified before Congress on this topic as the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing with the goal to educate members about the value to the US taxpayer of the social and behavioral sciences.  This kind of hearing sets a tone and provides Congressional members with talking points for later discussions of financial appropriations.

(In case anyone is interested, you can see a webcast of the hearing below.  The transcript and written statements will be posted there in about two weeks:
My written and oral statements are online at:

The reason for this note is that, after the hearing, I was asked two more questions by the committee chair with a request for responses to be submitted in writing for the record.  In preparing my responses, I have two requests for colleagues. The deadline is July 5th, and realistically it would be possible to incorporate anything received by the end of the week.
A. Any suggestions that you might have for me in answering these questions.
B. Brief notes from anyone interested, which I can append to my written responses (no more than a paragraph, please).  This is a chance for your input to go into the Congressional record.

Okay, so here are their questions, and these are BIG questions:

1. NSF is essentially the only federal agency that historically does not receive earmarks.  It prides itself on the merit-review process which, while not perfect, is currently the best we have.  Given its imperfections and the reality that some less than stellar grants are funded in ALL scientific disciplines, how would you recommend that it be improved?

2. In your testimony, you state that “Agencies like the NSF are in the best position to prioritize federal funding for SBE research…”  Besides highlighting “transformative” research, how else can NSF prioritize research?  Are there other elements that you would suggest focusing on to guide prioritization?

Big picture thoughts and tactical details are equally welcome.

Hillary Anger Elfenbein

Written by teppo

June 27, 2011 at 5:20 pm

12 Responses

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  1. “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.”

    Given the potential stakes, seems that (among other things) an online petition might be worthwhile.



    June 27, 2011 at 5:48 pm

  2. When we talk about improving the peer review process that guides NSF funding, I think it’s important to first figure out what the current problems with it are. Personally, I don’t think the system is that broken, but my opinion might differ from policymakers or the general public. I’d like to know what policymakers mean by “less than stellar grants.” It’s quite possible, probable even, that grants they consider to be less than stellar actually have a great deal of scientific merit. The lack of a shared evaluative language and metric surely contributes this problem, which means that we have a problem of communication on our hands more than we do a problem of evaluation. As social scientists we need to do a much better job of explaining why our work has merit.


    brayden king

    June 27, 2011 at 5:53 pm

  3. It seems worth noting that the question about the efficiency of the peer review- and grants system is in itself a social science question, and one with obvious importance and practical value beyond the social sciences. From that perspective it’s kind of ironic to ask the social scientists about improving the system before cutting off their funding…



    June 27, 2011 at 6:16 pm

  4. But if you listen to the chat between Timur Kuran and Douglass North, you might ask if NSF funding is efficient.

    The basic premise of the “Power versus Market” structure is that political decisions are inefficient investments. War is the worst case. When we were at NMSU in 1979-1980, I interviewed Dr. Narendra Gunaji, chair of the civil engineering department. He was not a fan of the space program, suggesting with humor that we could get as much technology spin-off from the construction of a sea-level canal across the United States. In this context, imagine the social science research we do with a project like that. It seems that some want organizational efficiency, unless it comes as largess from the state, then inefficiency is fine.

    In fact, social science research enjoys productive and profitable markets for advertising, including even political campaigns. Academic sociologists have shown little success in discovering problems to be solved with measurable results. That may be that another example of “the pretense of knowledge.”

    Can anyone cite consequential social science research that came from NSF funding?


    Michael E. Marotta

    June 27, 2011 at 7:04 pm

  5. Related to this conversation – the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) division of the NSF published a set of papers/abstracts last year that “seeks to frame innovative research for the year 2020 and beyond that enhances fundamental knowledge and benefits society” — see here:



    June 27, 2011 at 7:18 pm

  6. Sigh…this would inevitably hinder graduate programs in sociology. Not only would the dissertation improvement grants go away, but the opportunities for graduate students to work on federally-funded research projects under their chairs and other faculty members, which could lead to invaluable experience and possible publications to assist with their job prospects and early careers.



    June 28, 2011 at 3:59 pm

  7. I didn’t do a careful count of the topics/disciplines represented in the list to which Teppo linked, but my quick scan suggests that economists are extremely well represented (although perhaps just proportional to their share of SBE funding, I don’t know). Linguistics is also well-represented, especially considering they’re a a small discipline that straddles the social science / humanities boundary. Very few sociologists wrote white papers. Where are they all? (And, what role did or should the ASA have had in drumming up people to write white papers?)

    Michael: the point of the NSF, as opposed to NIH, is to fund basic research that may or may not have direct applications. In some cases one can identify a direct link from NSF funding to a practical application, in other cases the NSF funded the development ideas that became so diffused in a field that a direct link is harder to discern, although no less important. This isn’t limited to social science research — NSF has funded a lot of “inconsequential” research in the natural sciences, too — so it’s not clear why (other than politics) social scientists should be singled out or held to a higher standard. Especially because the SBE budget is a tiny fraction of the NSF budget, which in turn is a fart in the wind in the overall budget.

    But, to play your game, a lot of the early work on social networks was NSF-funded. This research underpins current efforts to use network data and analytic techniques to identify social groups that wish to remain hidden (e.g., terrorist cells). Even if you don’t agree with this application of social science methods, it’s consequential.



    June 28, 2011 at 7:25 pm

  8. By my (very quick) count, and for what it’s worth, 16 of the 225 proposals list a corresponding author who is at a sociology department and 33 of the 225 list economics. (Of course, lots of b-school types, from both disciplines – don’t have time to arbitrate those…)



    June 28, 2011 at 7:38 pm

  9. […] NSF funding for the social sciences appears to be under threat, it would be great to see a crowdfunding model for academic research as well.  There seem to be […]


  10. […] our previous post on NSF funding for the social sciences – and some of the discussion bled into the crowdfunding research […]


  11. […] [via Hillary Elfeinbein, who testified before Congress on this issue] […]


  12. […] In short, Singapore has decided that analytics are of sufficient promise as a driver of the nation’s future economic growth that it’s subsidizing a private sector research program on the topic. Can you imagine such forward-looking investments in the U.S.? We can’t even decide whether to pay back our creditors. Instead of funding social analytics, social and behavioral science funding at the U.S. National Science Foundation was almost discontinued altogether. […]


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