Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Does Social Science Deserve Public Funding?

. Tuesday, February 5, 2013

John Sides notes that the Congressional Republicans have resumed their attack on federal funding of social science. Here's Eric Cantor, as quoted by Sides:

There is an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research. Doing all we can to facilitate medical breakthroughs for people … should be a priority. We can and must do better. 
This includes cutting unnecessary red tape in order to speed up the availability of life saving drugs and treatments and reprioritizing existing federal research spending. Funds currently spent by the government on social science – including on politics of all things – would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.
Cantor's argument is not that social science has no merit; it is that other policy goals should have priority. This is possibly wrong, but it is not unreasonable on its face. When development organizations start programs in less developed countries they do not fund social science. They fund health care, infrastructure, and basic education. This suggests that publicly-funded social science is, to some extent at least, a luxury good. The US government obviously does not face the same budget constraint as say Liberia, but at some margin there is a tradeoff between funding program A and funding program B. If 'A' is medical research and 'B' is social science research, it might make sense to prioritize the medical research.

Many people believe that the US is not spending nearly enough on infrastructure, health care for all, education, alternative energy programs, public transportation systems, and biomedical research. Or foreign aid, for that matter. Indeed, social scientists frequently make these claims. Cantor has laid down a challenge: can the social sciences demonstrate that their work is a better investment than research into new medical procedures, alternative energy sources, infrastructure upgrades, etc.? Can the social sciences demonstrate that money spent on their programs is worth more to society than whatever the next-best option is? More technically, Cantor is asking us to think about the relative opportunity costs given actual budget constraints.

This is an opportunity for the social sciences to demonstrate their value by making a clear, coherent argument. Simply pointing to research on topics of possible public interest (as Sides does) is not enough... it must be accompanied by an argument that that research is more deserving of public funding than something else. So far I have not seen such an argument made. I have seen social scientists act like any other interest group: they want public spending on programs that benefit them because those programs benefit them. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's a bit distasteful to equate common rent-seeking behavior with a broad public interest. If the social sciences deserve public funding they ought to be able to make the case on its merits. In a way, Cantor is challenging us to think like civically-minded social scientists.

Sides concludes his post:
The broader point is that Cantor’s goal, curing disease and saving lives, can be better accomplished by including social and political science alongside the “hard” sciences and medicine.
Maybe that's true (I'm not being sarcastic here), but it is indisputable that we cannot cure diseases without medicine. However, we can administer medicine without studies showing how we have previously administered medicine, however useful those might be. (If that wasn't the case we social scientists would have no cases to study!) If the efficiency gains and complementarity effects from combining research in the social and physical sciences are sufficiently high that they out-weigh the costs, then we ought to be able to demonstrate that fact using the tools of social science. In other words, it is incumbent upon social scientists -- not congressional representatives -- to demonstrate their value to society. The question is whether we can do it.

UPDATE: John Sides has responded with a good post. I don't disagree with much of; maybe not any of it. But also see my comment.


Unknown said...

This is one of the more thoughtful and humble posts on the issue. I expected something self-serving.

Does Social Science Deserve Public Funding?




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