Social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) research plays a critical role in advancing the missions of federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the 17 federal agencies of the nation’s intelligence community. These agencies use SBE research and invest in additional, mission-specific research to address their particular needs.
The examples below (as well as those in other sections of this report) describe a range of approaches that the National Science Foundation (NSF) and mission-oriented agencies have taken to address societal, behavioral, and economic components of their mandates. They demonstrate that one fundamental piece of research can affect many different problems, including those being addressed by different agencies, and that one agency’s work can be affected by information from many basic research projects.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sells the radio frequency spectrum to companies that need bandwidth to transmit sound, data, and video to individual and corporate customers. Before the 1990s, the FCC used simple auctions, such as lotteries with random winners, from the list of all bidders. Then, beginning in the early 1990s, the FCC began using research (some of which had been funded by NSF; see Box 2)107 that had developed mathematical principles to ensure that auction winners would pay a fair price.108,109 The FCC tested and adopted an algorithm to use with communication companies that allows companies to compete profitably but also ensures that consumers are not overcharged and taxpayers are not subsidizing unreasonable corporate profits. The additional government revenue from the initial auctions has been estimated at $60 billion; because this auction design was adopted by the FCC for later auctions and then spread worldwide, the estimated additional government revenue now totals about $200 billion.110
Data from the NSF-funded Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) played an important role in the welfare reform legislation of 1996, which involved multiple agencies, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.111,112 This ongoing study of a nationally representative
sample of families and individuals gathers data on employment, income, wealth, expenditures, health, marriage, childbearing, child development, philanthropy, education, and many other topics. During the welfare reform deliberations, these data were used to determine how and why women moved off of welfare. Counter to the commonly held belief at the time that women left welfare through marriage, the data showed that most women left welfare through work.113 The PSID also showed that women on welfare worked much more than most people assumed, but that their work was too poorly paid to lift them out of poverty. These findings influenced the inclusion in the welfare reform legislation of work requirements on welfare recipients combined with programs to provide the work-based assistance women needed to care for their families and become self-sufficient, such as child care services, cash income supplements and medical care for mothers and children, transportation assistance, and help for job searches. As a result, there was a significant increase in the number of single mothers who became employed114 and improved their own economic status and that of their children.115 However, people have different views about the long-term outcomes of welfare reform based on the same data.116
SBE research originally developed with NSF support—specifically, game theory, social network analysis, development economics, and anthropology—has led to the development of tools and applications that contribute to military capability in current conflicts and the prevention of future conflicts, as well as to efforts to combat terrorism. These capabilities are central to the missions of the U.S. Department of Defense, the intelligence agencies, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
One example is the use of intelligence tools based on social network analysis. As described above (see section on National Defense), NSF funded foundational research on social network analysis117 that the Office of Naval Research and Air Force Research Laboratory then used to develop a suite of mission-specific tools (e.g., organizational risk analysis and AutoMap). These tools allow analysts to examine key questions, such as, “If this actor is removed from the network, who will likely fill the position in the organizational structure?” The tools have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan to identify key tribal leaders, influential individuals, and the resources available to the networks.118
The Worldwide Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (ICEWS), noted above, has leveraged NSF-funded SBE research for tactical, operational, and strategic decision making. ICEWS uses computational models and natural language processing to extract events from newsfeeds and forecast political instability by country. Used by the U.S. Departments of State and Defense and the intelligence community, this system provides data to support policy decisions, understand local conditions, and provide operational insights for commanders. It creates forecasts and data analytic tools to indicate changes in people’s behaviors and activities. For example, ICEWS data forecast the 2012 ouster of President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay.
As another example, NSF and the U.S. Department of Defense have both jointly and independently supported research that has addressed the often subtle relationship between conflict, stability, and development. Specifically, analyses of the economic framework that underpins two popular approaches to counterinsurgency and stability operations revealed that ideology is not a primary driver of support for insurgent or terrorist groups.119 Rather, a population’s support for either a government and its allies or terrorist or insurgent groups is more strongly determined by whichever side can best provide public services, such as food, water, safety, and medical care. These findings were taught and used by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan, as reflected in changes to the Army counterinsurgency manual, and they were used to redefine the way military commanders use funds for rebuilding and reconstruction in that country.
Finally, since 2006 the Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture and Language has equipped Marines with the cultural skills and information required to function in complex operational environments around the globe. The center’s approach is founded on basic social science theory from multiple sciences, among them communication sciences, cultural anthropology, geography, political science, social psychology, and sociology. Marines are taught transferrable concepts and skills that they can use to engage with different cultures. SBE findings, theories, and methods are also used to develop regional and culture-specific content for the Marine Corps’ education and training programs, as well as to help the Marine Corps and other U.S. Department of Defense organizations meet challenges associated with stress and resilience and organizational change.
Use of anthropological and ethnographic methods played an important role in containing the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Anthropologists helped to save lives in these nations and to contain the disease, which had the potential to become a global threat. For example, because traditional methods of burial that call for the washing and touching of the dead are believed to have been responsible for 70 percent of new cases of infection in Sierra Leone,120 anthropologists developed a burial framework that allowed local people to see the body, but not have direct contact with it, and to include burial objects in the body bag prior to burial.121 The success of anthropologists as mediators in these situations led Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to include anthropologists as part of their outbreak response to increase understanding and to facilitate relationships with local populations.122 Similarly, the World Health Organization is recruiting anthropologists to join its Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak Response Teams to advise on social, cultural, and behavioral factors involved in the spread of Ebola worldwide.123
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.