Briefing highlights importance of social science research

By Terence Houston, Science Policy Analyst

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) speaks to attendees about the importance of sustaining funding for basic research.

In recent months, there have been multiple congressional attempts to interfere with  the  National Science Foundation’s support of the nation’s fundamental research particularly  related to social and behavioral science research.  Such attacks have happened periodically over the years, but recent actions have been particularly aggressive.

Congressional Republicans have pushed legislative efforts to restrict federal funding for social science research. The Continuing Resolution enacted to fund the government for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013 included language authored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) prohibiting NSF from funding political science research unless such research was certified to promote the national security or economic interests of the United States. House Space, Science and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) has repeatedly emphasized his intention to increase oversight of NSF’s grant approval process. Chairman Smith has also put forward draft legislation, the High Quality Research Act, which would cripple NSF’s existing scientific merit  peer-review process . These actions have drawn criticism from Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and concern from science advocates.

On April 25, the Coalition for National Science Funding joined with the House Research and Development Caucus, Co-Chaired by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rush Holt (D-NJ), in sponsoring a briefing entitled “Social Science Research on Disasters: Communication, Resilience, and Consequences.” The briefing highlighted examples of federally-funded social and behavioral science research contributions to the nation.

Rep. Holt, a practicing Ph.D. physicist before he was elected to Congress, highlighted the need for the US to continue to sustain investment of basic research across all fields of science.  NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett also underscored that message.

For example, NSF-funded social science research at Washington University in St. Louis helped the Army Research Institute incorporate nonverbal communication into soldier training, helping defense efforts towards improving cross-cultural non-verbal communication. A Western Washington University behavioral study on US veterans identified certain patterns of disadvantages in educational and career trajectories that could help the 200,000 military servicemen and women  who must readjust to civilian life each year post-service.

Behavior research on human response to natural disasters shows that local culture plays a role in how individuals respond to evacuation orders issued for hurricanes. Researchers Susan Weller (University of Texas) and Roberta Baer (University of South Florida) identified various factors, including exhaustion, traffic concerns and a belief in the ability to “ride out the storm” as affecting the manner in which people respond to mandated evacuations. Each of the briefing’s speakers gave their perspective on how behavior research informs federal response to human-made and natural disasters. H. Dan O’Hair(University of Kentucky) discussed the sociology of collaborative efforts between broadcast meteorologists and emergency managers and how their respective interests influence extreme weather event communication. Roxane Cohen Silver (University of California-Irvine) highlighted her research on communities  affected by shared traumatic events, including the 9/11/01 terrorists attacks and the Columbine school shootings.