Click for next page ( 94


The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 93
The National Interest In the 5 Support of Basic Research CONCLUSIONS In the committee's judgment, the evidence surveyed in the previous chapters on research advances in the behavioral and social sciences and the range of uses to which such advances have been put leads to a single, fundamental conclusion: Basic research in the behavioral and social sciences is a national resource that should be sustained and encouraged through public support. Federal investment in basic research in the behavioral and social sciences, like investment in other branches of science, is an investment in the future welfare of the nation. Supporting this conclusion are a number of consider- ations. (1) Basic research in the behavioral and social sciences has yielded an impressive array of accomplishments, and there is every reason to expect the yield from future research to be at least as great. At an accelerating rate during recent decades, such research has been responsible for (a) greatly increased substantive knowledge of individual behavior, social institutions, and cultural patterns under a wide variety of changing as well as stable conditions; (b) markedly improved methods of data collection and analysis, which have not only led to new discoveries and the resolution of old debates but also have provided the foundation for information technologies (e.g., sample surveys, standardized tests, economic indicators) now regarded as indispensable in the public and private sectors; and (c) continuing development of pedagogical and therapeutic procedures, of devices and arrangements for improving human performance and the human environment, and of procedures ~. 93

OCR for page 93
94 BEHAVIORAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH: PART I for evaluating public policies and proposed programs. Some of these developments are reviewed in the preceding two chapters and the papers accompanying this report; many others could be cited as well. On the basis of these kinds of contributions, the behavioral and social sciences merit support. (2) The benefits of basic research are seldom if ever predictable in advance; they are often unanticipated and still more often the outcome of complex, discontinuous sequences of discovery, insight, and invention. Investment in basic research must be regarded as investment in a process that is expected to yield substantial contributions to individual and social well-being, but it cannot be regarded as a direct purchase of those contributions. There are several reasons for this. First, it is generally not clear in advance where or when major scientific discoveries or breakthroughs will occur. The history of research in all fields is one of unforeseen interpenetrations of findings, insights, and methodological advances, false starts, miscues, and provisional answers later superseded by superior formulations. Sequences of steps that, with hindsight, seem to constitute a consistent advance toward a particular goal often were experienced by those responsible for them as confused, accidental, and haphazard. Similarly, rates of progress are seldom predictable to those immediately involved. Although cumulative over the long run, the orderliness of scientific research generally emerges only in retrospect. Hence it generally is not possible to identify specific areas or topics as targets for special attention or intensive support with any confidence that they and not some other area will yield major new insights or discoveries. Second, specific research findings rarely translate automatically or directly to any particular use or application. Once it is published, scientific knowledge becomes available for any and all possible applications. A common and indeed highly desirable fate is that a particular finding will be utilized in ways never even imagined by its discoverers. And, conversely, a given application typically will exploit findings, methods, and procedures from a wide variety of disciplines and research areas, often in a long and complex . chain of development. An attempt to trace the research and development underlying 10 major clinical advances in medicine and surgery (between 1945 and 1975) confirms this view. On the basis of a thorough review of the research literature, Comroe and Dripps (1977) identified 663 articles that they regarded as essential for one or more of the advances. Four points are of special interest. First, more than 40 percent of the articles "reported research done by scientists whose goal at that time was unrelated to the later clinical advance. . . . Such unrelated research was often unexpected, unpredictable, and usually greatly accelerated advance in many fields" (Comroe and Dripps, 1977:29.

OCR for page 93
The National Interest in the Support of Basic Research 95 Second, each of the clinical advances depended on the cumulation of dozens of studies conducted by hundreds of investigators; no advance could be attributed to the work of a single researcher or a single research group. Third, the lag between an initial discovery and its effective clinical application was usually substantial: Of 111 discoveries investigated, 57 percent had been applied more than 20 years after publication. Finally, the 663 articles identified as essential contributions were culled from a review of more than 6,000 published articles. It is highly improbable that "essential contributions" could have been identified in advance, especially given the typical long lag before application. These findings provide firm support for the conclusion that basic research must be encouraged without regard for its immediate applicability. While we do not know from the study just described what fraction of basic research eventually comes to be applied, we do know that, in the biomedical field at least, clinical (that is, applied) advances depend heavily on basic research efforts, that it takes a great deal of research to produce each "essential contnbution," and that it is impossible to predict in advance which contri- butions will prove essential. Moreover, applications are often very slow in coming; hence a demand for shorten payoff would be shortsighted indeed. While parallel research in the behavioral and social sciences has not yet been conducted, the process described by Comroe and Dnpps for the biomedical sciences is probably applicable to them as well.' Certainly, most of the applications mentioned in the previous chapter have drawn on basic 'This process probably differs, moreover, from that reported in a study entitled "Project Hindsight," conducted some years ago by the Department of Defense. That study, in attempting to track the sources of the scientific and technological innovations that were employed in new or improved weapons systems, reached the conclusion that only a small fraction of one percent of them came from "undirected science." The study concluded, more sweepingly, that "it is unusual for random, disconnected fragments of scientific knowledge to find application rapidly. It is, rather, the evaluated, compressed, organized, interpreted, and simplified scientific knowl- edge that we find to be the most effective connection between the undirected research laboratory and the world of practical affairs" (Sherwin and Isenson, 1967:1577). We suggest that this conclu- sion might have arisen from the circumstance that the investigators were looking backward from the limited perspective of a single weapons system. Different conclusions might have emerged if they had traced forward projections from a new and fundamental idea, identifying its combina- tions and recombinations with other ideas, findings, and methods, to its ultimate applications. In addition, Project Hindsight gave no consideration to scientific contributions that might have occurred more than 20 years prior to the final completion of the weapons systems chosen for study, thus possibly passing over basic scientific studies that contributed to the foundation for later applications. It is quite possible that the basic physical, ballistic, and electronic principles that underlie weapons design were established much earlier. If 57 percent of the essential contributions to clinical advances in medicine were made more than 20 years before their application, the percentage is likely to be far higher with respect to weapons systems.

OCR for page 93
96 BEHAVIORAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH: PART I research developments in a variety of disciplines, as have many of the applications mentioned in the papers. (3) The coupling between basic research in the behavioral and social sciences and its applications to public policy is significant and growing, but it is also inherently loose, uncertain, incomplete, and often slow. Policies are properly constrained by political, social, and cultural considerations that may change in importance. To apply similar constraints to basic research would limit its effectiveness as a long-term source of new insights and approaches needed to meet unanticipated conditions. The health and vitality of scientific investigations require that at times they probe into areas of deeply held beliefs about human nature and the world. Research on the origins of the universe, on the evolution of life, on recombinant DNA, and on the heritability of traits can have this quality. In the behavioral and social sciences, that quality sometimes can apply to human evolution, to the mutually supporting or opposing influences of families, communities, and government agencies on individual development and economic well-being, and to many areas of deviance and unconventional or asocial behavior. Hence any direct transmission of findings is hindered by the differences between contexts in which scientific knowledge is generated and consumed. If the primary purpose of basic research were to effect social change or reform, it would be a frustratingly unpredictable and at best marginally effective way to achieve that end. But what identifies research as basic is for the most part a fundamentally different motivation-the concern to understand and explain human behavior and the consequences of social arrangements. Moreover, public policy decisions in all areas, including those involving scientific and technical considerations, are made and implemented through a political process rather than by means of strictly technical judgments. Decisions involve considerations that are not resolvable on technical grounds, such as individual and group values, ideological stances, and tolerance for risk and uncertainty. While expert advice and technical judgments may make an important contribution, public choices depend primarily on a balancing of short-run and long-run considerations as to the deployment of scarce resources that are worked out in compromise among cooperating, competing, and conflicting interests. This is true of policies affecting the location of dams and nuclear power plants, the provision of artificial kidney machines, and the choice of weapons systems as well as decisions regarding fiscal policy, crime control, school desegregation, and remedial reading. The persistence of disturbingly high (although possibly declining) inflation rates should not be regarded as a failure of economics, nor crime in the streets as a failure of sociology, nor venereal disease as a failure of medicine, nor the medfly invasion of California as a failure of entomology, nor the nuclear arms race as a failure of physics. Each case mentioned is the consequence .,

OCR for page 93
The National Interest in the Support of Basic Research 97 of a myriad of factors, only some of which are amenable to scientific or technical resolution. Especially great difficulties in applying empirical knowledge to purposive action can arise when there is lack of consensus on what constitutes a problem or what solutions are acceptable. In many areas connected with health, there is widespread acceptance of the social values in question. One of the reasons that applications such as the Salk vaccine program are relatively uncontro- versial is that there is a basic consensus supporting innovations to improve health; the only issues involved are technical ones regarding the efficacy and safety of alternative vaccines. But that is not always the case. When such consensus brealcs down, as it has with respect to abortion, technical knowledge is no longer a sufficient basis for action. Issues regarding what kinds of knowledge from the social and behavioral sciences are felt to be pertinent often entail a similar lack of consensus. The case of poverty was noted in the previous chapter. Is it strictly an economic condition resulting from major social malfunctions, so that those caught up in it deserve every assistance as they strive to escape? Or is it also a set of self-reinforcing attitudes and behaviors with negative moral overtones that society should seek ways to modify? Both the definition of the problem itself and appropriate solutions depend on one's value position along a wide spectrum of possibilities between these polar positions. Finally, many social policies have multiple, sometimes unanticipated consequences, so that the effort to solve one problem may simply exacerbate others. For example, efforts to improve the educational opportunities of minority children through school desegregation may have resulted in some instances in increased residential segregation as a result of "white flight" beyond the boundaries of school districts. In a complex society in which people are free to act in their own interests, as best they perceive them, the translation of knowledge from the social sciences into the solution of social problems is likely to be particularly difficult. Despite this, there is evidence that basic research in the social.and behavioral sciences does have an important impact on public policy. As with other sorts of applications, the impact is long term and relatively indirect (Weiss, 1977:534-535, emphasis added): Evidence suggests that government officials use research less to arrive at solutions than to orient themselves to problems. They use research to help them think about issues and define the problematics of a situation, to gain new ideas and new perspectives. They use research to help formulate problems and to set the agenda for future policy actions. And much of this use is not deliberate, direct, and targeted, but a result of long-term percolation of social science concepts, theories, and findings into the climate of informed opinion.... This kind of diffuse, undirected seepage of social research into the policy sphere

OCR for page 93
98 BEHAVIORAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH: PART I can gradually change the whole focus of debate over policy issues. The process is difficult to document, but it appears likely that social research has helped shift the agenda and change the formulation of issues in a wide array of fields: compensatory education, punishment for alcohol and drug offenses, large-scale public housing, institutionalization of the mentally retarded, welfare reform, prepaid health care, child abuse, job training, court reform, and legislative reapportionment.... It is worth noting that the "long-term percolation of . . . concepts, theories, and findings into the climate of informed opinion" is a major benefit of basic research in all fields, entirely apart from direct practical applications. We should not lose sight of the social value of a continuing, cumulative growth of knowledge and understanding. Without regard for the practical payoffs that may follow, our lives are enriched by new and basic discoveries of unforeseen regularity or patterning. (4) The federal government is an indispensable and appropriate source of supportfor basic research. Basic research is, in the parlance of economists, a public good. Since free exchange and wide dissemination are conditions of its growth, its benefits must be freely available to all and cannot be controlled by those who conduct or have financed the research. Given this and especially given the necessary time lags and unpredictability of research outcomes, there is no reason to expect that either the private sector or federal agencies charged with other missions will serve as adequate sources of support for basic research. The efficient allocation of resources for public goods in general and for basic research in particular is through public funding. While there is no doubt that important research will continue to be done by researchers operating without funds or with the limited funds they can obtain from their own institutions and from nonfederal sources, a large fraction, perhaps the bulk, of basic research in the behavioral and social sciences would no longer be possible without financial support at levels beyond what these sources" most of them already under heavy pressure- can make available. Adequate funding for basic research in the behavioral and social sciences cannot be provided by dispersed institutional or market forces. Instead, it must continue to be primarily entrusted, as at present, to government agencies whose specific mission is the implementation of a long- term investment strategy with regard to the maintenance and promotion of basic research as a national resource. The rationale for funding basic research is quite different from prevailing rationales for funding mission-oriented research. Most of the latter, the committee assumes, will continue to be carried on even in the face of severely restricted budgetary conditions. Since mission-oriented research is designed to meet specific needs or problems, largely on an ad hoc basis, funding for it is provided by numerous government agencies, institutions, and private firms as a necessary adjunct to their own ongoing programs. Such a funding

OCR for page 93
The National Interest In the Support of Basic Research 99 patter, by itself, however, makes no provision for continuing replenishment of the stock of insights, ideas, and conceptual as well as analytic tools that grow from the findings of basic research. Implicit in the foregoing remarks is the assumption that basic research in the behavioral and social sciences must be understood as part of a broader continuum of research activities. Diverse in themselves, the behavioral and social sciences include some disciplines that at their margins merge almost imperceptibly with some of the physical and biological sciences, and others that similarly approach the humanities. Supplementing these continuities in subject matter that cross formal, disciplinary frontiers are similarities in method and outlook that extend across all fields of science. The special complexities, uncertainties, and entanglements of the human subject matter notwithstanding, the behavioral and social sciences are sciences like all others. Hence the same arguments that lead to a judgment to invest public funds in scientific research in general are equally valid for the behavioral and social sciences. ADDITIONAL CONCLUSIONS (5) The committee is convinced that the maintenance of some degree of balance among scientific disciplines is in the national interest and that this consideration should enter substantially into the processes of decision making about resources. Estimates of future significance and expectations of practical payoffs are quite possibly as speculative between major scientific domains as they are between alternative research opportunities within a single discipline. Concentrating resources only in selected fields would therefore introduce an unacceptable risk of failing to develop whole sectors of research, the significance of whose findings can be appraised only with considerable uncertainty until long after they are first reported. We wish to point out, however, that an important argument for differential federal support would favor precisely those fields in which the immediate payoffs are least obvious. Where payoffs are obvious, other sources of support generally can be expected. In that sense there may well be a particularly urgent case for the kind of long-term investment strategy that only the federal government can sustain in those fields of inquiry undergoing normal growth but not obviously on the verge of important, publicly recognized breakthroughs that can attract other forms of support. (6) Irrespective of the gross level of national resources devoted to the support of basic research in the behavioral and social sciences, the committee believes that certain policies for the expenditure of these resources are clearly superior to others. The preeminent principle is the maintenance of continuity insofar as possible. Large, abrupt changes in funding levels, either by

OCR for page 93
100 BEHAVIORAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH: PART I discipline or by problem area, interfere with the orderly planning of research strategies and sharply reduce the effectiveness of whatever funds are available. This is not an argument against making any alteration, but instead for implementating changes slowly and consistently over a period of years. Sudden moves leave little opportunity for consultation, mutual readjustment, and consequent fine-tuning of the relationship between federal agencies and those immediately affected by the introduction of new policies. A second guiding principle involves the advisability of permanently maintaining a mix or balance among activities receiving research support, even if budgetary pressures become much more serious than we can now foresee. We believe it would be a serious mistake, for example, to accommodate to increasing uncertainties by entirely foreclosing projects that presuppose long-term funding and from which quick payoffs cannot be expected. Longitudinal studies of this kind often offer insights of great potential significance both for basic knowledge and for policy purposes, and they are difficult or impossible to resume once they have been discontinued. Exactly similar arguments apply to the maintenance of large-scale national data banks and research facilities. Ambitious interdisciplinary undertakings are another case in point. Their potential payoff in many unexpected directions is large, even though it may well be accompanied by an increased risk of failure. In other words, to meet budgetary stringencies by concentrating resources on short-term or small-scale or low-risk undertakings would be a prescription not for the survival of the behavioral and social sciences but for the piecemeal destruction of their promise and quality. At the same time, we would not be prepared to argue that short-term or small-scale or low-risk undertakings should be disproportionately sacrificed either. All of these modes of research, singly and in combination, have contributed to the advance of the behavioral and social sciences, and there is no basis for singling out particular modes as most worthy of federal support. A third guiding principle, pertaining particularly to the social sciences, is that research on foreign cultures should not be cut back disproportionately as a way of coping with budgetary stringencies. Entire disciplines, and substantial parts of others, depend on international research opportunities: anthropology, archaeology, history, comparative politics, development eco- nomics, to name only a few. And still other social science disciplines would be well served to expand, rather than contract, their comparative focus. Perhaps because the United States has been the major locus of advancement in most areas of the social and behavioral sciences, much of our knowledge about the structure and functioning of social systems is relatively parochial, restricted far too much to analysis of the United States. Both to understand social patterning in general and to provide a comparative basis for assessing

OCR for page 93
The National Interest in the Support of Basic Research 101 the uniqueness of social arrangements in our own society, social scientists need to be able to do research in many different societies. (7) A major danger facing the behavioral and social sciences as a result of currently declining support of research is the deflection of talented people into other fields and professions. This threat is exacerbated by simultaneous contraction of opportunities for academic employment, but the latter is a general condition, while the decline of research funding has been relatively more severe in the behavioral and social sciences than in other fields. As already noted, the problem is in one sense likely to be less critical in mission- oriented agencies than in agencies that support basic research, since the decline in their funding will probably be less precipitous. However, we have also taken note previously of the close, synergistic relationship between basic and mission-oriented research, and in particular of the importance to the latter of the continuing enhancement of the stock of new findings and methods derived from basic research. In a deeper sense, therefore, basic and mission- oriented research share the same problem of professional training. A further consideration makes this problem still more urgent. It is becoming steadily more important not merely to maintain pools of talent at present levels of training and capability but to improve the quality of those pools in order to move in new, and especially interdisciplinary, directions. Among the papers commissioned by the committee, for example, are ones arguing persuasively for a convergence of currently semiautonomous lines of inves- tigation around a new and promising life-course perspective, which may well become a new discipline of its own (Featherman); outlining progress in an area of marked overlap with the physical as well as biological sciences (Braida et al.~; and illustrating important complementarities between medicine and the behavioral sciences (Krantz et al.; Wilson). These and others point to a growing need for individual researchers with broadened and enhanced capabilities, even if the total number of researchers is gradually reduced as a result of declining employment and research funding levels. The committee suggests, therefore, that serious attention be given to programs that will increase opportunities for advanced, probably postdoctoral, training. SUMMARY The essential themes developed in this report can be briefly summarized. Basic research is carried on in order to create and husband a stock of knowledge, with the confidence that such a stock will be drawn on-for further advances in knowledge as well as for diverse and important practical ends in ways that seldom can be accurately foreseen. Familiarization with and participation in basic social and behavioral research also play a vital part

OCR for page 93
102 BEHAVIORAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH: PART I in graduate professional training. Such training is needed to assess the relevance of available or prospective findings for the design, implementation, and evaluation of social programs. Hence even mission-oriented researchers need to be thoroughly acquainted with the methods and the results of basic research. Neither the creation of new knowledge nor the training of practi- tioners is an objective that can be most profitably pursued in irregular spurts and pauses or only in relation to narrowly targeted applications. The power of basic research to improve and enrich our lives grows out of the mutual reinforcement and synergism of many interlocking ideas, findings, and practical outcomes. It cannot be understood and properly utilized if we concentrate instead on isolated, product-centered outcomes. These observations do not provide a prescription for what the sources and level of support of basic research in the behavioral and social sciences should be. But they do suggest that a disinterested, long-term program of support, carried out as a broad, farsighted investment policy rather than to meet the immediate policy objectives of particular agencies, is in the national interest.