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JEFF BRADEN: Why we need federal funding of social science research

Posted August 9

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jeff Braden, a psychologist, is Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at N.C. State University. This column was initially written for the Higher Education Works Foundation of North Carolina.

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President Donald Trump’s budget proposes to dramatically reduce or altogether eliminate federal funding for social science research, primarily through cuts to the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Mental Health. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has challenged critics of the proposed budget to make the case to taxpayers as to why their money should be spent on items the president has targeted for reduction or elimination.

Mr. Mulvaney, I accept your challenge: Here’s why taxpayers should want their tax dollars spent on social science research.

Social Science Research Saves Money — and Lives
The largest single expense for most governments — at local, state and national levels — is health care. There are two broad ways to address health issues: by paying for medical products and procedures to make sick people better, or by changing lifestyles to keep people from getting sick in the first place.

Social science research has shown it’s not enough to simply tell individuals to avoid things that are bad for them, or to do things that are good for them. Frankly, it’s more complicated. Careful research has shown that things we thought worked don’t. For example, the drug reduction program known as D.A.R.E. has not changed drug use in students. And research has also shown things we thought wouldn’t work, do. A simple pre-operative checklist saved the state of Ohio $100 million and 3,300 deaths caused by infections in just one year. At NC State, where I work, I see the impact of social science research through the contributions of faculty like psychologist Sarah Desmarais, who’s helping Wake County save money — and increase safety — by changing the way the jail handles individuals with mental illness.

Ongoing investment in this type of research can benefit taxpayers by reducing costs, increasing days worked and taxes paid, and improving outcomes.

Private Companies Won’t Step In
Currently, there is no real profit motive for industry to fund social science research. Behavioral research does not produce things that can be patented and in turn, become profitable.

In a free market, social science research returns less money to the business funding it than the cost of the research. But if the public funds the research, and reduces its costs for medical and social services — by preventing chronic illness, reducing hospitalizations and increasing employment — the cost/benefit ratio works. According to cost/benefit analyses, social science research returns $6 to $20 to the public through reduced costs or increased employment for every dollar invested — but it’s not going to make any one company very rich.

The Nonprofit Sector Can’t Step In
Most nonprofits exist to meet pressing and immediate needs. Although food banks can’t afford to fund research on food deserts, the United States Department of Agriculture can and did: that funding enabled NC State sociologist Sarah Bowen’s research that is increasing access to healthy foods for Raleigh families in food deserts.

Charitable foundations sometimes incorporate funding for social science research into their missions. But such foundations are few and far between, and simply don’t have the bandwidth to fund major projects.

And so, Mr. Mulvaney, why should taxpayers want their tax dollars spent on social science research? Because private industry won’t, because charitable foundations can’t, and because social science research saves money, promotes better health, increases employment and savings and improves our quality of life.

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