Gee on Solovey, 'Social Science for What? Battles Over Public Funding for the "Other Sciences" at the National Science Foundation'

Mark Solovey. Social Science for What? Battles Over Public Funding for the "Other Sciences" at the National Science Foundation. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2020. 408 pp. $50.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-262-35875-0; (e-book), ISBN 978-0-262-35874-3.

Reviewed by John Gee (Harvard University)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (August, 2022)
Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version:

Mark Solovey’s history of social science funding at the National Science Foundation (NSF) is something of a hybrid: at once an institutional history of the NSF, an intellectual history of controversies surrounding the public role of the social sciences, and (around the edges) an intervention into the long-running debates it chronicles. Social Science for What? Battles Over Public Funding for the "Other Sciences" at the National Science Foundation uses its detailed, long-range study to present a conundrum that remains urgent in the present day, while emphasizing the difficulty instead of downplaying it. It is eminently useful as both a provocation and a basis for discussion.

The conundrum is simple enough to explain. Leading figures in the social sciences locked their disciplines into a scientistic self-presentation after World War II in order to secure federal funding, and this devil’s bargain has painted them into a corner ever since. Solovey is careful to define scientism, for his purposes, as the idea that the social sciences are junior partners to the natural sciences in a single scientific project with unitary epistemological standards. The initial reasons for making this devil’s bargain are well understood (in part thanks to Solovey’s earlier book, Shaky Foundations: The Politics-Patronage-Social Science Nexus in Cold War America, 2013) and he rehearses them ably here. In short, New Deal liberals brought the social sciences into government, but disciplinary leaders were wary of being corrupted by political influence, conservatives were skeptical of everything connected to the New Deal state (or liberal social values), and natural scientists usually had one or both attitudes. Leaders in the social sciences used scientistic discourse to argue for inclusion in government funding on the same basis as the natural sciences, securing professional autonomy at the cost of political neutrality. The distortions entailed in this self-presentation not only excluded large areas of research but opened the social sciences up to renewed criticism whenever the mask slipped.

The real interest of Solovey’s argument is how and why the social sciences have found themselves unable to renege on this deal up to the present. He shows how the crosscutting pressures felt in the 1940s recurred over several decades, in different guises and in varying strengths. This recurrence produces a waxing and waning narrative, in which no step is ever a comfortable one. After a decade patiently accruing scientific respectability in the NSF, social scientists in the 1960s reengaged with the politicians. By the end of the decade, they felt pressure from both congressional liberals and the Nixon White House to produce applied research for government use, which they obligingly did despite doubts about its scientific value. When conservative critics (never absent) regained power in the 1970s, the scientists folded quickly under the pressure and returned to the “hard core” orientation of the 1950s. Then, like the grim reaper, came the Reagan revolution, with its budget cuts and its drive to turn government against itself. Disciplinary leaders organized a rearguard action to stanch the bleeding. They formed an umbrella organization, put up a studiously apolitical front, and emphasized contributions in favored fields like economics and technology. Such has been the strategy ever since. The disciplines’ desire for independence means they never throw their lot in fully with the state; the need for funding means they never stray too far from it. The specter of reaction means they eschew overt political commitment, while always needing defenders in high places.

The book is about the “other sciences,” meaning the social as opposed to the natural. It is most useful, however, when it draws the lines between the social sciences themselves. As Solovey notes, building on existing literature, economists drew apart from the other disciplines in the crucible of the 1980s, with high-prestige, mathematized fields of “basic” research nonetheless connected intellectually and professionally to the world of partisan think tanks and executive agencies. The success of economics would have come as a surprise to the 1950s social scientists, who grouped it with political science as being unfortunately narrow and applied. If anything, anthropology was the favored child of the early postwar: one foot in the biological sciences (unlike sociology), but not as assimilable to them as psychology; with aspirations to universality (unlike economics or political science), but clear relevance to public affairs. Solovey shows the balancing act economists pulled off, while also showing us how easy it was for others to tip over.

As a chronicle, the book has many detailed arguments relating to questions like how bad exactly the Reagan years were for the social sciences, how much the exponents of scientism really believed in it, and so on. These are valuable and insightful, especially as fodder for taking strategic lessons, but occasionally belabored. They also impinge unnecessarily on the book’s self-presentation in the introduction. Please, nonspecialist readers, I beg you not to think this book is small time. It simply discharges its responsibility to maintain the historical record with somewhat more synoptic detail than the typical monograph. Solovey gives lists that are comprehensive rather than exemplary, and some of these lists involve numbers. Future historians will be grateful, but they will not be limited to factual-footnote gratitude.

As an intervention, the book exhorts the social sciences to cut bait on the NSF and revive the idea of a National Social Science Foundation (NSFF—actively discussed in 1968). This argument rests on a convincingly presented double bind: the social sciences require public support, which will always be insufficient and constraining if it comes from the NSF. Solovey closes by endorsing such a foundation, but leaves the details of proposals to others.

I commend Solovey for putting his cards on the table face-up instead of just showing the corners. In that spirit, I will close by responding to his bid. I agree that federal support is the linchpin of academic research in the US, and that basic social-scientific research is necessary and publicly valuable. However, this may be putting the cart of basic research support before the horse of government work. The example of economics is salutary: as Elizabeth Popp Berman shows in Thinking Like an Economist (2022), that discipline built its privileged status in part by permeating government offices with applied research. Consequently, an NSSF might first require stronger support for sociologists and demographers in, say, the Census; or more self-conscious government promotion of NSF-funded “big social science” projects like the General Social Survey.

On a more dour note, I cannot place much hope in the bipartisan lobbying work of disciplinary associations (or rather, their aggregate representative, the Consortium of Social Science Associations [COSSA]). Solovey depicts COSSA’s pragmatism favorably, suggesting that its bipartisanship has convinced members of Congress (enough to make a difference in budget season) that the social sciences are a national resource worth funding, and that they are responsibly overseen and not politically biased. This approach, he explains, originated as a survival strategy in the Reagan years but has continued to pay dividends. To my mind, it is prudent to keep eggs in both baskets in times when one can expect the alternation of parties to shift emphasis among disciplines and research areas. In the present moment, however, the right wing is openly hostile toward any vision of government of which the social sciences could be a part, along with the higher education system they rely on. Their continued survival can only depend on a new governing coalition rooted in the progressive orientation that was after all the foundation of their appeal for New Dealers and 1960s liberals. If that kind of coalition is itself untenable, then the social sciences need to ask not only what sort of coalition would be tenable in its place, but how their own institutional form would need to change in order to support it.

Where Solovey and I agree wholeheartedly is the proposition that the social sciences need practical political wisdom and experience. This book will be useful not only to historians of science or of the US federal government, but to any social scientists (including historians) who want to participate in that endeavor.

Citation: John Gee. Review of Solovey, Mark, Social Science for What? Battles Over Public Funding for the "Other Sciences" at the National Science Foundation. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. August, 2022.

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