Bill could strain research through political filter

Special to The Washington PostMay 22, 2014 

Congress soon will make an important set of decisions that could significantly impact our nation’s global technological and economic edge now and for years to come. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee is about to mark up legislation — the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act (FIRST Act) — to reauthorize a number of agencies and programs, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), charged with enabling the United States to uphold a position of world leadership in research and education.

The FIRST Act has many important, positive aspects. But it is marred by two issues that will limit its effectiveness in producing future discoveries and the understanding to make use of them. One is a substantial reduction in funding for social science research. The second is the addition of a potentially devastating layer of review to ensure any research is “worthy of federal funding” and “in the national interest.”

Though understandable in the present economic environment, reduction in funding of federal science agencies is regrettable. Numerous studies have shown that U.S. competitiveness is based in large part on innovation and that peer-reviewed research is a hugely important driver of that innovation.

But isn’t it reasonable to emphasize “hard science” funding at the expense of the “softer” social sciences and humanities? Absolutely not. A life in medicine and science has taught me that our most difficult challenges may require scientific expertise but will not be solved by science alone.

I applaud members of Congress who keep a sharp eye on wasteful spending. But I ask them to remember the growing number of economic and national security challenges whose solutions require in-depth understanding of underlying social structures. Addressing such problems as poverty and disease depends as much on a mastery of the broader issues that drive political and economic decisions as it does on the science and technology involved.

Social science research helps us promote democracy by understanding the motivations of Americans as well as our allies and adversaries, while providing an edge and added security to our troops overseas. NSF-supported research has provided policy makers from the Jersey Shore to New Orleans with a greater understanding of how communities react to natural disasters such as hurricanes, which improves their ability to prepare for adverse events.

In our rapidly changing world, technological advances and cultural changes symbiotically embrace each other. We all know that the Internet that made social media possible grew from scientists developing a better way to share data with each other. Today, social media are changing how we communicate and interact on the most basic levels — with foes as well as friends. Understanding the psychology behind these phenomena and interactions will be crucial to our nation’s economic leadership and security.

The best way to balance budgets and maintain the United States’ leadership role is through economic growth, which won’t happen unless we properly educate our workforce to produce scientists — including social scientists — whose research betters us all.

The more troubling problem with the FIRST Act is its addition of a potential political filter to the peer-review system. As our leaders promote transparency and economic efficiency in federally funded research, I respectfully submit that when they mark up this bill, they make a concerted effort to ensure that both science-oriented research and social, behavioral and economic research receive the support they deserve. And that they permit the proven system of peer review to determine priorities for funding, with no overlay of additional considerations.

We have a long way to go as a nation to fully understand how we can best improve people’s lives. We need the data — all available data — to inform that quest.

David J. Skorton, a professor of biomedical engineering, medicine and pediatrics, is the president of Cornell University. He wrote this for The Washington Post.

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