This report responds to a request from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) to convene an expert committee and produce a report within 3 months to answer the general question of whether the federal government should fund research in the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences at NSF. The committee was specifically charged with answering the following questions:
- Do the SBE sciences advance NSF mission areas of national health, prosperity and welfare; securing the national defense; and promoting the progress of science?
- Do the SBE sciences advance the missions of other federal agencies?
- Do the SBE sciences advance the work of industry and business?
- What are priorities for NSF investment in the SBE sciences, and what are important considerations for NSF for future strategic planning?
The committee also was asked to provide examples of how the SBE sciences have helped the nation address societal challenges (see Box 1 for the committee’s full statement of task).
The committee interpreted its charge as speaking to the value of SBE research funded by NSF and how it might be strengthened in the future. The committee did not address the question of whether NSF should be funding SBE research, since that is a decision for policy makers, not researchers. Rather, the committee addressed the questions of whether SBE research generally has served NSF’s mission areas well and has also served the needs of the nation. Moreover, in the limited time available, the committee did not attempt a comprehensive review of SBE research or even that supported by NSF. Rather, the committee relied on past reports of the National Research Council and the National Academies and the wide-ranging expertise of committee members to identify examples of the contributions of SBE research. Thus, this report contains illustrative examples of SBE studies, some of which have led to great benefits to society and to science, sometimes in surprising ways. The committee mainly identified examples of NSF-funded research but viewed other research as relevant to questions in its charge about whether SBE research has advanced business and industry and national priorities.
After extensive discussion of the research gathered, the committee developed the following criteria for identifying examples of research most relevant to answering the charge, although an example did not have to meet all the criteria to be considered:
- The research is of the type that NSF typically funds, more basic than applied.
- The research addresses an issue important to society.
- The research requires minimal detailed technical explanation.
- The research has informed policy or led to discoveries that have advanced national priorities (in health, national defense, welfare and prosperity) or the work of business and industry.
- The research has resulted in broad applications of SBE research to areas not typically associated with the SBE sciences.
- The research findings are counter to common sense, intuition, or generally held beliefs.
- The research has dramatically advanced progress in science or illustrates a trend in science that could lead to significant progress and be applied to advancing national priorities.
These criteria were applied both to research identified in National Academies reports published mainly in the past 20 years and to other research identified by committee members.1 The committee concluded that the SBE sciences both advance NSF’s mission and serve well many of the most important needs of society. The examples provided in this report illustrate how these fields of study can further NSF’s mission, the missions of other federal agencies, and the work of industry and business. The committee does not claim that all SBE research serves NSF’s mission or national needs. As in all fields, the SBE sciences progress through successes and failures. In addition, as noted above, the committee could not do a comprehensive review of all SBE research in the time allotted and thus had to rely on examples. The committee also offers recommendations to improve NSF’s strategic planning process in ways that better enable SBE research to meet the nation’s priorities and challenges.
Every month the Gallup Poll asks a representative sample of Americans “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?”2 The main problems identified include the economy, health care, jobs, race relations, and unemployment. Issues such as these have clear social, behavioral, and economic aspects that need to be better understood, and SBE research can contribute to understanding and addressing them. Moreover, many other problems that at first glance appear to be issues only of medicine or engineering or computer science have social and behavioral components, such as patients’ understanding of medical information and community responses to proposed highway development.
Having a fundamental understanding of how people and societies behave, why they respond the way they do, what they find important, what they deeply believe or value, and what and how they think about others is critical in today’s shrinking global world.
Having a fundamental understanding of how people and societies behave, why they respond the way they do, what they find important, what they deeply believe or value, and what and how they think about others is critical in today’s shrinking global world. The diverse SBE sciences that are supported at NSF—anthropology, archaeology, demography, economics, geography, linguistics, neuroscience, political science, psychology, sociology, and statistics—produce fundamental knowledge, methods, and tools for a greater understanding of people and how they live. Like all sciences, the SBE sciences bring a rigorous,
methodical approach to pursuing knowledge—collecting data, formulating and testing hypotheses, analyzing evidence—that sheds light on the underlying nature of problems and can help point the way toward remedies. Those remedies depend in part on understanding the social, behavioral, and economic components of problems and how they interact with other aspects.
Like all sciences, the SBE sciences bring a rigorous, methodical approach to pursuing knowledge—collecting data, formulating and testing hypotheses, analyzing evidence—that sheds light on the underlying nature of problems and can help point the way toward remedies.
Consider, for example, the challenge of immunizing the population against infectious diseases, such as measles and influenza. Medical science has developed many effective vaccines, and when they are administered to the appropriate numbers of people they control the spread of disease. Recent outbreaks of measles, such as those in California and Minneapolis, occurred because not enough parents had their children vaccinated for measles; they did not believe or did not accept the value of vaccination.3,4 These outbreaks show that individual beliefs and social influences can disrupt vaccination programs and place communities at risk. They also demonstrate that there is a role for the SBE sciences in helping to understand the social and behavioral dynamics of vaccination decisions and using that understanding to develop more effective public health and public information strategies. That is, in addition to the biology of a disease, vaccination efforts require dealing with individuals’ and groups’ beliefs and decisions about vaccination.
Or consider the task of designing road systems. It may seem to be a relatively straightforward matter, but trying to forecast and understand the decisions that people make about using those road systems play an important role in their design. For example, most drivers will find the shortest possible route to their destination, to minimize their driving time.5 When a new road is built to alleviate congestion, drivers will take that route if it offers the possibility of less time on the road. But if too many drivers choose the new route, traffic increases and it is no longer faster. This paradox explains why roads that are built to improve traffic flow can quickly become congested6 and points to the importance of accounting for human preferences and decisions.
Because gaining a complete understanding of many problems and proposing feasible solutions require collaboration between the SBE and other sciences, the SBE sciences are increasingly working with other fields. For instance, meeting many of the challenges recognized in a 2008 report of the National Academy of Engineering, Grand Challenges for Engineering, will require collaboration with the SBE sciences.7 Meeting the challenge to secure cyberspace, for example, will require research on how people interact with computers, the Internet, and information in ways that increase the risk
of cybersecurity breaches. Research is also needed to understand the behaviors and social influences on those who commit cybercrimes, such as hackers and saboteurs in organizations.8 Some interdisciplinary efforts are addressing these issues with combined expertise in business, computer science, economics, law, policy, and social and behavioral sciences.9
The numerous contributions of SBE research to society can easily be overlooked—in some cases precisely because the knowledge from that research has become widely accepted. For example, everyone used to think that babies are born as a “blank slate,” unable to learn much for the first 6 weeks or so. But research in the early 1970s showed that newborns can learn and remember a variety of associations right away, a fact that people now take for granted.10
Another example of now-accepted knowledge comes from the field of polling. Methods and tools for how to ask questions effectively, how to maximize responses, and how to identify representative samples were developed through SBE research.11 Such understandings and tools are now commonplace in society.
The SBE sciences enable the prediction of many kinds of outcomes with greater certainty, including the success or failure of corporate strategies, economic policies, and legislative agendas.12,13,14 But while people readily recognize a need for experts from medical research, physics, or biology, when thinking about predicting or explaining human behavior people tend to use “common sense” derived from their own accumulated experiences and anecdotes. Although some people may believe that research knowledge is needed, some who could benefit from SBE research may not be aware that sophisticated tools and insights from the SBE sciences are available to improve understanding and decision making.15,16,17
Moreover, common sense can at times be too simple an explanation or just plain wrong. It is commonly believed, for example, that successful people are successful mainly because they are smarter, have worked harder, or are in some other sense more deserving of success than unsuccessful people. However, social science research (including some funded by NSF)18,19 shows that a large fraction of observed differences in success derive from other factors—such as place of birth, random
Many leaders of business and industry have long recognized that intuition and common sense are not sufficient, and they use knowledge, tools, and methods from SBE research to understand markets, develop innovations, and inform decisions.
Moreover, some findings from SBE research can fail to persuade people precisely because they do not fit with what people already believe to be true. In fact, research in cognitive science has shown that people are more likely to ignore, misremember, forget, or explain away information that does not fit their preconceived notions, such as about how the world works or why people act as they do.22,23
Many leaders of business and industry have long recognized that intuition and common sense are not sufficient, and they use knowledge, tools, and methods from SBE research to understand markets, develop innovations, and inform decisions.24,25,26 Federal, state, and local governments also have begun to recognize the utility of the SBE sciences to both the formulation of policy and the testing of which policies do or do not work in practice.27
The federal government has a long history of investment in SBE research. Congress created NSF in 1950 with the unique mission “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense.”28 Although other, mission-driven federal agencies fund basic research in the SBE sciences—including the National Institutes of Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Defense—as do foundations, companies, and other organizations, the science that NSF supports often is not directed toward a particular national need or designed to solve a specific problem. Rather NSF-supported basic research is designed to produce foundational understandings on a broad range of topics and develop innovative methods for advancing knowledge. For any type of research, it is not always possible to predict where the research will lead or what effects it will have, but this situation is particularly true for basic research.
Surveys show that people in the United States generally support the federal government funding basic research even though the ultimate uses and effects cannot immediately be known and may take years to unfold. This approach has served the nation well, yielding many benefits both to science and to national priorities.
According to a 2015 survey of U.S. adults, a majority (71%) say government investment in basic science research “pays off in the long run,” about the same number of Americans who say engineering
and technology “pay off in the long run” (72%). This support for government investments in basic research is unchanged since the questions were last asked in 2009. A majority of adults (61%) consider government funding essential for scientific progress.29
The appropriated fiscal 2016 budget for NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences directorate (which funds the largest portion of NSF SBE research) was $272.2 million.30 The value of providing this basic research funding through NSF, rather than through mission-specific organizations, is that the research is broader in scope and often applies to multiple sciences and to a wide range of problems. For example, the underpinnings of game theory have been applied to research across many global challenges, including kidney transplants, transnational terrorism, and nation-state behavior (see Box 2).
Investments in foundational knowledge from the SBE sciences such as those described in this report have led to many applications and tools that have provided new understanding, ways of addressing societal problems, and enhancements to the quality of life of individuals and for the nation. The stories of such advances sometimes leave the impression that the outcomes were preordained, but such an impression is hindsight. Most often, the findings, methods, and tools that were developed ended up having many different practical uses that were not foreseeable. Even so-called failures in these fields, as in all of science, contribute to knowing which explanations are not accurate and which innovations are unworkable. Just as early technological developments of the microchip took years to develop into computers that were practical to use, research in the fundamental aspects of human behavior can take years to bear practical fruit (see the example in Box 2).
The SBE sciences, like all sciences, pose novel questions and have unique methods. These scientific methods provide systematic ways to gather data through well-designed studies that over time have yielded new understandings of important areas of national interest, as illustrated throughout this report. In this way, SBE research has provided theories, methods, data infrastructure, and tools that are used broadly in the scientific community and beyond.
CONCLUSION 1 The social, behavioral, and economic sciences lead to 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.
The next four sections of the report provide discussion and examples of this conclusion in the areas of health; prosperity and welfare; national defense; and advancing progress in science with innovative theories, methods, and tools.