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The Boston Globe

Opinion

THE PODIUM

FIRST Act: Keep politics out of scientific research

The US Capitol.

AP/file 2013

The US Capitol.

As Americans, we pride ourselves on being leaders in science and innovation. Our researchers have unlocked the power of different forms of energy, pioneered the field of genetics, explored the mysteries of the oceans and space, decreased child mortality, and made life in our cities safer.

Unfortunately, Congress is now debating a proposed law that threatens to undermine our future as one of the world’s leaders in scientific progress. Called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act, or FIRST Act, it would limit the amount of funding directed toward research in the social sciences, and empower the federal government to make political decisions about what constitutes the most worthwhile research.

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Currently, Congress designates approximately $7.2 billion to the National Science Foundation, or NSF, which funds nearly a quarter of all “federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities.” Decisions about which projects to fund are made by selection committees composed of accomplished researchers. If enacted, FIRST would pare NSF funding dollars from certain fields, while boosting spending in other areas specified by lawmakers.

FIRST singles out the social, behavioral, and economic sciences for funding cuts. This dangerous decision can’t be ignored — the list of contributions made in these fields of research is endless. To cite two examples, social scientists have documented the major impact of childhood events on adolescence and adulthood, and they’ve delineated how positive social ties can help people lead healthier lifestyles, recover faster from illness, and live longer.

I’m a social scientist. It’s obvious that a decision to cut funding to these groups would provide a major blow to researchers within my field. But even more than that, my counterparts in the natural sciences would feel the ramifications just as deeply.

Only through the integration of research from multiple scientific fields over many years have we made gains against the spread of infectious diseases, unsafe workplaces, cardiac disease, cancer, and obesity. Epidemiological studies by social scientists helped biologists to establish the detrimental causal pattern of smoking cigarettes. In recent years, the World Health Organization has reported substantial global progress improving nutrition and reducing rates of HIV. The solutions to such massive problems have been built on the research of social and natural scientists alike.

The NSF currently awards research grants based on a peer-review process. These decisions are based on the merits of the grant application. But when politicians become involved, we risk letting politics trump scientific merit. FIRST stipulates that each NSF research grant be subject to congressional certification that the project “is in the national interest.” But all this means is that politicians would have the opportunity to cherry-pick the studies they believe hold some kind of interest — national, personal, political, or otherwise.

The legislation’s chief supporter is US Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. He supports the act’s focus on the areas of science that are “critical for economic growth, and keeping the economy strong.” Which raises the question: Where does this leave every other societal issue?

Of course, even if imperatives toward other critical areas of science are built into FIRST, it’s unrealistic to ask members of Congress to evaluate with any degree of certainty the studies that could, down the road, affect a greater societal issue than might be explicitly described in a grant application. To make these kinds of decisions, Congress would be better served by a crystal ball.

The ramifications of passing this legislation extend far beyond the laboratory or the classroom. By de-emphasizing social science research, and empowering politicians to decide what kind of science should be pursued, we risk placing America’s role as the world’s science innovator in the hands of a new layer of bureaucracy. It doesn’t take a scientist of any kind to tell you that’s not in our national interest.

David T. Takeuchi is the associate dean for research at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work.

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