September/October 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 7

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Vantage Point: From the Executive Director
Sally T. Hillsman, ASA Executive Officer

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

Why Study Social Science?
“Because It Matters.”

The National Science Board (NSB) is the governing body of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and official policy advisors to the president and Congress. In late April 2014 NSB submitted a highly unusual statement to Congress in response to pending legislation—the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act of 2014 (FIRST Act).

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The NSB has rarely made such a defiant statement to Congress.

The NSB argued that the FIRST Act’s“specification of budget allocations to each NSF Directorate would significantly impede NSF’s flexibility to deploy funds to support the best ideas” in science. A major target of First Act was the NSF Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate which was scheduled by the bill for a 22 percent cut.  NSB’s statement and the subsequent massive opposition from the science community have stopped the progress of the FIRST Act.

What Is the National Science Board?

The NSB was created as part of the legislation that created the NSF (National Science Foundation Act of 1950) with the authority to “recommend and encourage the pursuit of national policies for the promotion of research and education in science and engineering.” The Board, working within Congress’s authorization language and the President’s national science policies, does a number of specific tasks, including approving new major programs and awards. The Board also serves as an “independent body of advisors to both the President and the Congress” on science and engineering matters (see

The Board has 25 members, appointed by the President, and each member serves a six-year term. NSB members are all eminent scientists from industry and academia, who are intentionally selected to have diverse backgrounds, across areas of scientific expertise and geographic areas. ASA is extremely gratified that at this critical time two of the most recent Board appointees have close ties to the social science community—current COSSA President James Jackson (Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan) and Robert Groves (former Director of the Census Bureau and provost at  Georgetown University).  Jackson and Groves were sworn in for their six-year terms at the August 2014 Board meeting.

Making the Case for the Social Sciences

With growing opposition to the SBE Directorate from some members of the Republican Caucus in Congress, the Board decided to fulfill its oversight responsibility at its August Board meeting and asked the SBE Directorate to articulate why the Directorate remains essential to federal support for the nation’s basic research infrastructure. Acting SBE Assistant Director Joanne Tornow did such a superb job of this she may have converted some skeptics to become ambassadors for the SBE Directorate.

On the most elemental
level, the SBE sciences
explain why you comprehend
what I am saying. On a day-to-day
level, they help us navigate familiar
and professional relationships,
build stronger and safer
communities and to run
businesses, efficiently
and effectively.

—Joanne Tornow

Tornow was unapologetic in her presentation and began her talk by asking, “Why study human behavior and social organizations? Because it matters.” She went on to say, “On the most elemental level, the SBE sciences explain why you comprehend what I am saying. On a day-to-day level, they help us navigate familiar and professional relationships, build stronger and safer communities and to run businesses, efficiently and effectively. And on [a] macro level, they enable us to better understand and address the vexing political, social, and economic challenges that dominate newspaper headlines.”

Tornow then explained that the social sciences are sciences just like astronomy, astrophysics, chemistry, and biology. Social sciences work with “observational data and measurements,” emphasizing objective intent. She noted that simply because examining human beings and their motivations may not be the same as dealing with some physical science inputs does not mean the social sciences methods are less scientific.

She continued and identified some of the big questions for the SBE Directorate. How does the human brain produce cognition and behavior? How, when, and why do we cooperate or compete? When does conflict arise?

During the questions and answers section of the talk, Tornow identified inequality as one of the emerging challenges that SBE-funded research can address.

Fundamental Understanding

When NSF was formed in 1950, Congress gave it the mission “to promote the progress of science; to advance national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense.” It was created to identify the next frontiers of science. To do so, NSF supports scientists who seek fundamental understanding.  And our nation and the world benefit from this.

Today, some in our country have forgotten NSF’s mission or may seek to change this mission. This is reflected in the much narrower questions being asked by some in Congressof scientists conducting basic research: What is the near-term return on the federal investment in their research? And, will this research produce the next great product? This narrowing of congressional focus on how taxpayers’ money should be invested in research will significantly hamper progress in the long history of the sciences’ pursuit of the new knowledge that is essential for improving people’s wellbeing.

Prior to Tornow’s talk about the social sciences at NSB, Board member Kelvin Droegemeier, Professor of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, noted that almost the same number of people die today from tornadoes as they did in 1959 even though we now have made enormous scientific, engineering, and technological advances, such asDoppler radar. What our nation doesn’t have yet, he went on to say, is the social scientific knowledge base about “how people respond and react and understand.” Without more social science research, he said the benefits of other sciences and technologies cannot be translated into enhanced public wellbeing.

Our nation faces many challenges today and will face many more unknown challenges tomorrow. Without enhancing the already strong knowledge base of the social sciences, we as a nation and a world citizen will not be able to adequately address these challenges.

ASA members need to continue their active support of the mission of the National Science Foundation and the leadership of the National Science Board. They are stewards of scientific progress and they understand the value of the science we love and practice.

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at

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