Nearly every major challenge the United States faces—from alleviating unemployment to protecting itself from terrorism—requires understanding the causes and consequences of people’s behavior. Even societal challenges that at first glance appear to be issues only of medicine or engineering or computer science have social and behavioral components. Having a fundamental understanding of how people and societies behave, why they respond the way they do, what they find important, what they believe or value, and what and how they think about others is critical for the country’s well-being in today’s shrinking global world. The diverse sciences of the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences—anthropology, archaeology, demography, economics, geography, linguistics, neuroscience, political science, psychology, sociology, and statistics—all produce fundamental knowledge, methods, and tools that provide a greater understanding of people and how they live.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine appointed an expert committee to determine whether the federal government should fund SBE research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), and, specifically, whether SBE research furthers the mission of NSF to advance national priorities in the areas of health, prosperity and welfare, national defense, and progress in science; advance the missions of other federal agencies; and advance business and industry, and to provide examples of such research. The committee was also asked to identify priorities for NSF investment in the SBE sciences from past National Academies reports, if any, and important considerations for NSF for strategic planning.
The committee drew three conclusions based on a review of previous National Academies reports and other research and information from NSF regarding the agency’s process for establishing priorities.
CONCLUSION 1 Overall, the social, behavioral, and economic sciences produce a better understanding of the human aspects of the natural world, contributing knowledge, methods, and tools that further the mission of the National Science Foundation to advance health, prosperity and welfare, national defense, and progress in science.
CONCLUSION 2 The understanding, tools, and methods provided by the social, behavioral, and economic sciences—including research supported by the National Science Foundation—provide an essential foundation that helps other agencies achieve their missions.
CONCLUSION 3 The social, behavioral, and economic sciences have provided advances in understanding and tools and methods that have been applicable to business and industry and that enhanced the U.S. economy.
Each of these conclusions is supported by examples of SBE research, many of which have been supported by NSF.
Although it is commendable that NSF consults with advisory groups and with the broader SBE scientific community to identify needs and opportunities in the SBE sciences, in the absence of a strategic plan it is unclear how these inputs are combined and integrated in the agency’s SBE priorities. The committee offers four recommendations to better enable SBE research to meet the nation’s priorities and challenges.
RECOMMENDATION 1 The National Science Foundation (NSF) should undertake a systematic and fully transparent strategic planning process to provide a clear articulation of the most important scientific questions in the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences that is consistent with NSF’s mission. In addition, NSF’s strategic plan should specify the resources and methods required to advance the progress of SBE fields. The plan should reflect broad input from a wide array of stakeholders and put forth priorities for NSF support, while recognizing the need to have a broad and diverse portfolio of innovative projects whose applications may not be immediately apparent but advance the progress of science.
RECOMMENDATION 2 The National Science Foundation (NSF) should continue to support the development of tools, methods, and research teams that can be used to advance the social, behavioral, and economic sciences; facilitate their interactions with other scientific fields; and help NSF and other agencies and organizations more effectively address important national needs.
RECOMMENDATION 3 The National Science Foundation should support training consistent with the ways science is evolving across all scientific fields. Training should prepare the next generation of scientists to be more data-intensive, interdisciplinary, and team oriented.
RECOMMENDATION 4 The National Science Foundation (NSF) should undertake more intensive and systematic efforts to communicate the results and value of the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) research it supports and how its grants advance NSF’s mission. NSF should encourage the broader SBE sciences community to increase its efforts to communicate the results and societal relevance of SBE research.