Does the US government really need a ‘Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate’?

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

One of the things government should do is invest in basic scientific research. But the upcoming budget sequester will fall on the just and unjust alike. Assuming 10% cuts across the board in discretionary spending, the National Science Foundation will lose roughly $700 million from its annual $7 billion budget. We should probably be increasing the NSF budget by $700 million — but only if it is spent wisely and to truly extend the frontiers of important science. In a 2011 study of the NSF, Senator Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican, claims to have found more than $3 billion in waste and duplication. Among the more egregious examples:

– $80,000 study on why the same teams always dominate March Madness;

– $315,000 study suggesting playing FarmVille on Facebook helps adults develop and maintain relationships;

– $1 million for an analysis of how quickly parents respond to trendy baby names;

– $50,000 to produce and publicize amateur songs about science, including a rap called “Money 4 Drugz,” and a misleading song titled “Biogas is a Gas, Gas, Gas”;

– $2 million to figure out that people who often post pictures on the internet from the same location at the same time are usually friends; and

– $581,000 on whether online dating site users are racist.

– Hundreds of millions of dollars lost to ineffective contracting;

– $1.7 billion in unspent funds sitting in expired, undisbursed grant accounts;

– At least $3 million in excessive travel funds

– A lack of accountability or program metrics to evaluate expenditures.

Clearly there is room for some budget tightening. And while the NSF will suffer an across-the-board cut, the agency itself should be pickier. How about axing the $250 million a year in NSF dough spent by its Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate, a source of many of the more outrageous studies? Henry Miller of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution says the SBE “would be an obvious place to begin that rethinking. Its programs need to be both trimmed and reorganized, and peer-review needs to be more effective. According to a former senior official, ‘When the social sciences grants were part of the Biology Directorate they were embedded in a culture of scientific rigor and in competition with strong science [in other disciplines]. When they split off on their own the inmates took over the asylum and their world became quite insular.’”


17 thoughts on “Does the US government really need a ‘Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate’?

  1. “One of the things government should do is invest in basic scientific research.” Why? But what justification should the government steal to fund the pursuits of the highly educated? Does private industry do no “basic scientific research”?

    • The underlying assumption is that if you throw enough money into lots of “research projects” that you will often times come up with things that are valuable. The 3M company used to take this approach with R&D. The difference is that the government typically has no ROI discipline, so analyzing baby names is deemed to be just as worthwhile as anything else. At least 3M had to continually demonstrate to shareholders that the R&D spending produced a return.

  2. Does the US government really need a ‘Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate’?“…

    Its someone (or most likely several many someones) pet pork project and its no more necessary than having HUD, HEW, Ag, Commerce, or the CBC for instance and its just as unconstiutional also…

  3. I wonder what these guys would say, or the “waste” they would find, back in 1961 when JFK announced we were going to the Moon? Check my blog: (Google search) ‘Economics Without The B.S. — the post ‘Challenge Me!’ — and listen to Kennedy’s speech at Houston in 1962.

  4. Must the US government really give away $628 billion in corporate tax loopholes?

    The last is particularly egregious. Refiners claim the biodiesel credit by putting blended fuel in tankers bound for Europe, where diesel cars are the norm. And ethanol blend mandates will really hurt after the drought trimmed the corn crop last year. Noticed the price of chicken lately?

    • You can go to my blog: (Google search on) ‘Economics Without The B.S.’, look for the post ‘Challenge Me!’ and listen to JFK’s speech in Houston in 1962 — for leadership into the unknown. We need to get back to leaders (in government and the private sector) who can tap into our desire to explore the unknown. (There is another post that addresses this ‘Supply Side Economics vs Demand-Driven.) Where is the Demand?

      • Just so we’re clear – are you seriously suggesting that the type of studies mentioned are satisfying the “desire to explore the unknown”?

        • I guess you didn’t visit the blog. The topic is ‘the government investing in basic reserarch’ — basic research involves delving into the unknown, otherwise it wouldn’t be basic research. You may pick on the studies that are listed above — but OUR government is capable of a lot more. When JFK said we would go the Moon, he didn’t come up with that out of the clear blue sky. Before, he surveyed the scientific community for a challenge that would engage the whole nation in a national effort that would reap benefits throughout the community. A lot was unknown as to what the benefits would be, but they had faith that there would be a payoff — AND THERE WAS. We need to get back to a demand-driven economy/society that can meet the many challenges before us that are being ignorred because of complacency.

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