With the automatic sequestration cuts geared up to slash billions of dollars from domestic programs, military funding, social services, and government-sponsored scientific research—including about a 6 percent reduction for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF)—policymakers and professionals are scrambling to stave off the worst by resetting priorities. In a major speech last month, House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), proposed outright to defund political and social science: "Funds currently spent by the government on social science—including on politics of all things—would be better spent on curing diseases," he said, echoing a similar proposal he made in 2009. Florida Governor Rick Scott has made a similar push, proposing to divert state funds from disciplines like anthropology and psychology "to degrees where people can get jobs," especially in technology and medicine. Those are fighting words, but they're also simple-minded.
Social science may sound like a frivolous expenditure to legislative budget hawks, but far from trimming fat, defunding these programs would fundamentally undercut core national interests. Like it or not, social science research informs everything from national security to technology development to healthcare and economic management. For example, we can't decide which drugs to take, unless their risks and benefits are properly assessed, and we can't know how much faith to have in a given science or engineering project, unless we know how much to trust expert judgment. Likewise, we can't fully prepare to stop our adversaries, unless we understand the limits of our own ability to see why others see the world differently. Despite hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars poured into the global war on terrorism, radicalization against our country's core interests continues to spread—and social science offers better ways than war to turn the tide.
In support of Rep. Cantor's push to defund political and social science, a recent article in the Atlantic notes that "money [that] could have gone to towards life-saving cancer research" instead went to NSF-sponsored projects that "lack real-world impact" such as "the $750,000 spent studying the 'sacred values' involved in cultural conflict." Perhaps the use of words like "sacred" or "culture" incites such scorn, but as often occurs in many denunciations of social science, scant attention is actually paid to what the science proposes or produces. In fact, the results of this particular project—which I direct—have figured into numerous briefings to the National Security Staff at the White House, Senate and House committees, the Department of State and Britain's Parliament, and the Israeli Knesset (including the prime minister and defense minister). In addition, the research offices of the Department of Defense have also supported my team's work, which figures prominently in recent strategy assessments that focus on al Qaeda and broader problems of radicalization and political violence.
Let me try to explain just exactly what it is that we do. My research team conducts laboratory experiments, including brain imaging studies—supported by field work with political leaders, revolutionaries, terrorists, and others—that show sacred values to be core determinants of personal and social identity ("who I am" and "who we are"). Humans process these identities as moral rules, duties, and obligations that defy the utilitarian and instrumental calculations of realpolitik or the marketplace. Simply put, people defending a sacred value will not trade its incarnation (Israel's settlements, Iran's nuclear fuel rods, America's guns) for any number of iPads, or even for peace.
The sacred values of "devoted actors," it turns out, generate actions independent of calculated risks, costs, and consequences—a direct contradiction of prevailing "rational actor" models of politics and economics, which focus on material interests. Devoted actors, in contrast, act because they sincerely and deeply believe "it's the right thing to do," regardless of risks or rewards. Practically, this means that such actors often harness deep and abiding social and political commitments to confront much stronger foes. Think of the American revolutionaries, who were willing to sacrifice "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" in the fight for liberty against the greatest military power of the age—or modern suicide bombers willing to sacrifice everything for their cause.
Sacred values—as when land becomes "Holy Land"—sustain the commitment of revolutionaries and some terrorist groups to resist, and often overcome, more numerous and better-equipped militaries and police that function with measured rewards like better pay or promotion. Our research with political leaders and general populations also shows that sacred values—not political games or economics—underscore intractable conflicts like those between the Israelis and the Palestinians that defy the rational give-and-take of business-like negotiation. Field experiments in Israel, Palestine, Nigeria, and the United States indicate that commitment to such values can motivate and sustain wars beyond reasonable costs and casualties.
So what are the practical implications of these findings? Perhaps most importantly, our research explains why efforts to broker peace that rely on money or other material incentives are doomed when core values clash. In our studies with colleagues in Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Iran, the Levant, and North Africa, we found that offers of material incentives to compromise on sacred values often backfire, actually increasing anger and violence toward a deal. For example, a 2010 study of attitudes toward Iran's nuclear program found that most Iranians do not view the country's nuclear program as sacred. But for about 13 percent of the population, the program has been made sacred through religious rhetoric. This group, which tends to be close to the regime, now believes a nuclear program is bound up with the national identity and with Islam itself. As a result, offering these people material rewards or punishments to abandon the program only increases their anger and support for it. Predictably, new sanctions, or heightened perception of sanctions, generate even more belligerent statements and actions by the regime to increase the pace, industrial capacity, and level of uranium enrichment. Of course, majority discontent with sanctions may yet force the regime to change course, or to double down on repression.
Understanding how this process plays out over time is a key to helping friends, thwarting enemies, and managing conflict. The ultimate goal of such research is to help save lives, resources, and national treasure. And by generating psychological knowledge about how culturally diverse individuals and groups advance values and interests that are potentially compatible or fundamentally antagonistic to our own, it can help keep the nation's citizens, soldiers, and potential allies out of harm's way. Our related research on the spiritual and material aspects of environmental disputes between Native American and majority-culture populations in North America and Central America has also revealed surprising but practical ways to reduce conflict and sustainably manage forest commons and wildlife.
The would-be defunders of social science denounce an ivory tower that seems to exist only in their imagination—willfully ignoring evidence-based reasoning and results in order to advance a political agenda. Only $11 million of the NSF's $7 billion-plus budget goes to political science research. It is exceedingly doubtful that getting rid of the entire NSF political science budget, which is equal to 0.5 percent of the cost of a single B-2 bomber, would really help to produce life-saving cancer research, where testing for even a single drug can cost more to develop than a B-2. Not that we must choose between either, mind you.
Social science is in fact moving the "hard" sciences forward. Consider the irony: a close collaborator on the "sacred values" project, Robert Axelrod, former president of the American Political Science Association, recently produced a potentially groundbreaking cancer study based on social science modeling of cancer cells as cooperative agents in competition with communities of healthy cells. Independent work by cancer researchers in the United States and abroad has established that the cooperation among tumor cells that Axelrod and colleagues proposed does in fact take place in cell lines derived from human cancers, which has significant implications for the development of effective treatments.
Research from other fields of social science, including social and cognitive psychology and anthropology, continue to have deep implications for an enormous range of human problems: including how to better design and navigate transportation and communication networks, or manage airline crews and cockpits; on programming robots for industry and defense; on modeling computer systems and cybersecurity; on reconfiguring emergency medical care and diagnoses; in building effective responses to economic uncertainty; and enhancing industrial competitiveness and innovation. For example, perhaps the greatest long-term menace to the security of U.S. industry and defense is cyberwarfare, where the most insidious and hard-to-manage threat may stem not from hardware or software vulnerabilities but from "wetware," the inclinations and biases of socially interacting human brains -- as in just doing a friend a favor (like "click this link" or "can I borrow your flash drive?"). In recognition of that fact, Axelrod has suggested to the White House and Defense Department an "honor code" encouraging individuals to not only maintain cybersecurity themselves, but also not to lapse into doing favors for friends and to report such lapses in others.
Elected officials have the mandate to set priorities for research funding in the national interest. Ever since Abraham Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences, however, a clear priority has been to allow scientific inquiry fairly free rein—to doubt, challenge, and ultimately change received wisdom if based on solid logic and evidence. What Rep. Cantor and like-minded colleagues seem to be saying is that this is fine, but only in the fields they consider expedient: in technology, medicine, and business. (Though possibly they mean to make an exception for the lucrative social science of polling, which can help to sell almost anything—even terrible ideas like defunding the rest of social science.)
It's stunning to think that these influential politicians and the people who support them don't want evidence-based reasoning and research to inform decisions concerning the nature and needs of our society—despite the fact that the vast majority of federal and state legislation deals with social issues, rather than technology or defense. To be sure, there is significant waste and wrongheadedness in the social sciences, as there is in any science (in fact, in any evolutionary process that progresses by trial and error), including, most recently, billions spent on possibly misleading use of mice in cancer research.
But those who would defund social science seriously underestimate the relationship between the wide-ranging freedom of scientific research and its pointed impact, and between theory and practice: Where disciplined imagination sweeps broadly to discover, say, that devoted actors do not respond to material incentives or disincentives (e.g., sanctions) in the same way that rational actors do, or that communities of people and body cells may share deep underlying organizational principles and responses to threats from outside aggressors, such knowledge can have a profound influence on our lives and wellbeing.
Even before they revolted in 1776, the American colonists may have already enjoyed the world's highest standard of living. But they wanted something different: a free and progressive society, which money couldn't buy. "Money has never made man happy, nor will it," gibed Ben Franklin, but "if a man empties his purse into his head no one can take it away from him; an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest." He founded America's first learned society "to improve the common stock of knowledge," which called for inquiry into many practical matters as well as "all philosophical Experiments that Light into the Nature of Things ... and multiply the Conveniences or Pleasures of Life." George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and John Marshall all joined Franklin's society and took part in the political, social, and economic revolution it helped spawn. Like the Founding Fathers, we want our descendants to be able to envision great futures for our country and a better world for all. For that, our children need the broad understanding of how the world works that the social sciences can provide -- not just a technical education for well-paying jobs.
Scott Atran, an anthropologist and psychologist at John Jay College, the University of Michigan, Oxford University and ARTIS Research, is author of Talking to the Enemy and In Gods We Trust.
Copyright Scott Atran
This essay has also appeared in foreignpolicy.com