January 29, 2014

EDITORIAL: Preserving the Social Sciences

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The Coburn Amendment, a set of restrictions on the types of political science research that could be funded by the National Science Foundation, was effectively repealed when the Senate passed the $1.1-trillion appropriations bill earlier this month. The restrictions, which were passed in March, prevented the NSF from funding such research unless it pertained to U.S. national security or economic interests. While the amendment may have caused damage beyond the 10 months it was in effect that cannot be reversed, we commend Congress for overturning the amendment and reaffirming the value of the social sciences. Given the increasingly precarious position of federal humanities research funding, we believe the University should continue to commit to the future of the social sciences, both through physical space and resources.

As we noted in an April 9 editorial condemning the Coburn Amendment, the NSF has played a significant role in funding political science research both at and beyond Cornell. Until the amendment’s passage, the foundation supported 61 percent of research in the social sciences nationwide, and funded one in five of all external political science grants given to graduate students and faculty at Cornell. In requiring that funded projects be certified by the NSF’s director to have specific economic and national security implications, the Coburn Amendment may have had a variety of consequences for political science research: from defunding existing projects, to dissuading researchers from applying for NSF grants, to even causing political scientists to change their topics of study to qualify for funding.

The passage of the Coburn Amendment exposed a troubling facet of modern American thought: the devaluation of the “soft sciences” — the social sciences and humanities — at the expense of a focus on science, technology, engineering and math fields. Though STEM education plays a key role in the modern economy, we cannot allow expansion of those fields to eclipse the value of the humanities. The debate about the merit of the soft sciences is present at Cornell, too. President David Skorton, a former heart surgeon himself, has spoken out repeatedly about the benefits of the humanities and social sciences, even calling them “crucial” to a modern education. Though several major University construction projects support the expansion of STEM disciplines, Klarman Hall — which will provide more space for the College of Arts and Sciences’ humanities departments — serves as visible manifestation of the University’s commitment to the growth of the humanities.

The repeal of the Coburn Amendment is an admirable development, but there is no safeguard preventing a similar policy from passage when Congress takes up another spending bill later this year, and the hazard it posed to the social sciences is far from over. The lessons about democracy, political participation and public policy imparted by political science research are as relevant as ever. With the political vulnerability of social science research, the future of the humanities depends upon federal government action in tandem with action by universities. We urge Congress as well as the University to continue to promote the social sciences.