More on Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's attack on NSF's social science research

Date: Fri May 12 2006 - 10:51:26 EDT

Science 12 May 2006:
Vol. 312. no. 5775, p. 829
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5775.829a
Prev | Table of Contents | Next
News of the Week
Senate Panel Chair Asks Why NSF Funds Social Sciences
Jeffrey Mervis

Why is the National Science Foundation (NSF) funding a study of a
women's cooperative in Bangladesh? Why are U.S. taxpayers footing the
bill for efforts to understand Hungary's emerging democracy? And why
are social scientists even bothering to compile an archive of state
legislatures in a long-gone era when those legislators chose
U.S. senators?

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), chair of a panel that oversees
NSF and a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, put
those and other sharply worded questions to NSF Director Arden Bement
last week during an unusually combative hearing on the agency's 2007
budget request. Hutchison signaled that she will be taking a hard look
at NSF's $200-million-a-year social and behavioral sciences portfolio,
which funds some 52% of all social science research done by
U.S. academics and some 90% of the work by political
scientists. Hutchison made it clear during the 2 May hearing that she
doesn't think the social sciences should benefit from President George
W. Bush's proposal for a 10-year doubling of NSF's budget as part of
his American Competitiveness Initiative (Science, 17 February,
p. 929). And she suggested afterward to Science that she's open to
more drastic measures.

"I'm trying to decide whether it would be better to put political
science and some other fields into another [government] department,"
she said. "I want NSF to be our premier agency for basic research in
the sciences, mathematics, and engineering. And when we are looking at
scarce resources, I think NSF should stay focused on the hard

Last week's hearing was not the first time Hutchison has taken a shot
at NSF's support of the social sciences. In a 30 September 2005 speech
honoring the winners of the annual Lasker medical research awards, she
backed a doubling of NSF's budget but added that social science
research "is not where we should be directing [NSF] resources at this
time." Hutchison tipped her hand a few months before the hearing by
asking NSF officials for abstracts of grants funded by the Directorate
for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) going back several
years. But the harshness of last week's attack caught the community by
surprise, leaving social scientists and their supporters scratching
their heads about how best to respond.

"In some ways, it's SBE that tackles the most challenging scientific
questions, because its research investigates people's behavior and
touches on the most sensitive issues in our society," noted Neal Lane,
a physicist and former NSF director now at Rice University in Houston,
Texas. "So I'm not surprised that it's been hard to articulate how it
connects to innovation and improving the nation's competitiveness."
Aletha Huston, a developmental psychologist at the University of
Texas, Austin, who wrote a letter to Hutchison before the hearing
defending NSF-funded work by herself and colleagues at UT's Population
Research Center, points out that "if you want to understand how to
remain competitive, you need to look at more than technology, at the
organizational and human issues that play a role."

Hutchison says she hasn't decided how to translate her concerns into
legislation. One option would be to limit spending for the social
sciences in the upcoming 2007 appropriations bill for NSF. Another
approach would be to curtail the scope of NSF's portfolio in
legislation enacting the president's competitiveness initiative or
reauthorizing NSF's programs.

In the meantime, says sociologist Mark Hayward, who heads the UT
population center, it would be a mistake for social scientists to
ignore her concerns. "We have to be persistent and consistent in our
message," says Hayward, who along with Huston hasn't heard back from
Hutchison. "We can't just say, 'My goodness, she's not paying
attention.' "

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue Jun 09 2009 - 05:00:13 EDT