Skip to main content

Why Did the National Science Foundation Propose Slashing Its Own Social Science Budget?

Social science advocates and Democratic lawmakers suggest the White House was behind the NSF's proposed budget cuts.
Lab coats hang on hooks at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center at University Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wisconsin.

As they do every spring, representatives from the National Science Foundation—a $7.5 billion agency that funds hundreds of thousands of scientists across the country—went to Capitol Hill last week to defend the agency's budget request to members of Congress. This time, however, their ask was met with some surprise: NSF officials proposed to slash their own budget for their social, behavioral, and economic science programs (SBE) by more than 11 percent, from $220 million to $195 million. No other area of NSF science, such as its biology, geology, or polar science programs, were subject to such grievous cut proposals. At most, those were trimmed by less than 2 percent, and some saw substantial raises.

The request touched off consternation among social scientists and some lawmakers. And some say it's a sign of meddling from politicians. The NSF's decisions on how it allocated money to different research areas has, in recent years, been decided by scientific advisers such as the National Science Board and the National Academies of Sciences, according to government relations consultant Mark Vieth. "But we do not believe that this was the case in this year's budget," he says. "There were political motivations behind the disproportionate cuts, percentage-wise, to the SBE directorate." ("Directorate" is the NSF's official term for its different research areas.)

Likewise, Democrats on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology expressed similar concerns. "I do not doubt this steep cut was dictated by the White House," Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said during the NSF's budget hearing Thursday.

President Donald Trump isn't known for having any particular views on social science, but the same can't be said for certain congressional members of his party. Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which oversees the NSF, has long and vigorously criticized social science studies as a waste of NSF money. He's also, as Science reported, tried several times to limit social science funding at NSF. And, as Smith made clear at Thursday's hearing, even these new budget cuts wouldn't do enough to appease him: "I am concerned there are too many projects being funded in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences that are not worthy of taxpayers' dollars," he said.

When asked about Johnson's assertion that the social science cut was political, an NSF spokesman sent a statement saying that, in preparing its budget, the agency relies on guidance from many sources, including those scientific ones mentioned by Vieth in addition to Congress and the administration.

The National Science Foundation headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

The National Science Foundation headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

After holding these hearings, Congress decides how much money to give each agency. Lawmakers don't usually dictate to the NSF how it should divvy its allowance among its science areas, although they might put specific requests in their appropriation bill. The representatives on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology seemed divided on the matter, with some criticizing what they saw as silly studies, and others specifically calling out the social science cut as a bad idea. Meanwhile, NSF Director France Cordóva defended the very directorate her presented budget decimates. "We have many, many examples of the huge impact of the social and behavioral sciences," she said during the hearing.

"There's no reduction in commitment in the SBE directorate or SBE science research," says Stanley Dambroski, a spokesman for NSF who specializes in the agency's social science portfolio. Dambroski suggested that social, behavioral, and economic science studies will continue to be funded under other programs the NSF is investing in, such as its new, proposed "The Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier" program, for which it's asking $30 million. In a call for grant applications, the NSF describes the program as trying to "understand and develop the human-technology partnership."

"Sometimes the money might not show up as coming to a particular directorate," Dambroski says, "but the directorate is involved in the work."