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.
“Everyone understands that legislators face tremendous challenges related to the deficit and the national economy,” said Joanne Carney, director of the Office of Government Relations at AAAS. “But recently, selected research areas have been unfairly trivialized based on misinformation intended to challenge the scientific review process.”
Clear-cutting of support for key fields of research “could have a chilling effect on scientists and young people considering a future in science,” the group said in its 11 July letter.
Unfamiliar or seemingly exotic research topics have long been subjected to ridicule, AAAS has previously noted. From 1975 to 1989, for example, the late U.S. Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin) mocked research projects with titles such as “The Sexual Behavior of the Screw-Worm Fly”—a parasitic insect whose larvae, or maggots, attack livestock and even people, with devastating results. More recently, Senators Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and John McCain (R-Arizona) have mislabeled as frivolous important projects related to understanding addiction, global climate change, biodiversity, and antibiotic mechanisms.
Interdisciplinary research—integrating the physical and biological sciences with insights from social and behavioral fields—has become increasingly essential to scientific progress and innovation, Carney pointed out. The National Science Foundation is unique among federal agencies in that its research portfolio supports all science and engineering disciplines.
The computer revolution, for example, and the transformation of analog data into digital records, has spanned the biological and social sciences and could lead to better brain-imaging techniques. Similarly, major national investments in U.S. technology will require insights to how people interact with machines. The multi-billion dollar Geographical Information Systems (GIS) industry, which resulted from National Science Foundation (NSF) research, now routinely supports effective disaster-response efforts in the wake of events such as the 11 September 2011 terror.
Social, behavioral, and economic research also sheds light on U.S. demographic trends, criminal behaviors, decision-making processes essential to military and national security operations, prosperity indicators such as Gross Domestic Product, and many other important areas.
“Simply put, we need all scientists and scientific disciplines working—alone and together—to advance our knowledge base,” the group concluded. “Allocating federal investments competitively through scientific merit review is the very process that has led this country to be a world leader in science.”
The letter was supported by AAAS and an array of other top professional societies, including the Association of American Universities (AAU), the American Chemical Society, the American Economic Association, and the American Physical Society. Universities participating in the letter are located in California, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.
Fiscal year 2011 funding for NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavior, and Economic Sciences (SBE) has been estimated at $255 million, the same amount invested in 2010. For 2012, NSF has requested $301 million for its SBE directorate, which is 3.9% of its total budget proposal.
Read the full letter to policymakers from AAAS and more than 140 other scientific societies and universities.