Opinion

Social science caricature sets back human progress

The June 29 op-ed by physician and molecular biologist Henry I. Miller, "With NSF Funds Limited, Is $697,177 for Climate Change Musical Worth It?," raised important questions about accountability, but it unfairly implied that most social science research is frivolous.

Ever since the days of Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), whose Golden Fleece Awards in the 1970s and '80s famously roasted research projects with obscure or silly-sounding titles, government-funded efforts to understand human behavior have been a favorite target for attacks. Now the attacks are expanding to more broadly target basic science, which focuses on the long-term acquisition of knowledge rather than on developing new drugs or gadgets for the near-term.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article indicated that Tiffany Field reviewed the Duke University rat pup grant application. She did not.

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And yet, if we funded only research with immediate practical benefits, we would forfeit discoveries and developments that can transform our world. Obscure federally funded studies have returned unexpected and enormous benefits to society.

As an antidote to the too-easy attack on "frivolous" research, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) created the Golden Goose Award in 2012. It honors silly-sounding science that has nevertheless had important and often unanticipated practical results.

As an example, in the early 1960s, the Office of Naval Research funded two mathematicians, David Gale and Lloyd Shapley, who were studying a theoretical problem related to marriage compatibility. That’s right — the U.S. military paid economists to study marriage at the theoretical level. And in the 1970s, the National Science Foundation funded economist Alvin Roth to do follow-up research.

Gale and Shapley's marriage study demonstrated that it is possible to formulate a stable marriage "solution," which can be expressed as an algorithm, in which each individual ends up with the most preferred individual who also preferred that individual.

It may not be in the national interest to find a formula for perfectly matching couples, but the nation definitely has an interes in what came next. Roth helped adapt the Gale-Shapley algorithm into a system that matches the best doctors with the best medical residencies for their training. Similarly, the algorithm helps kidney donors find matches without breaking laws that forbid the sale of organs — another "market" that would not exist were it not for this groundbreaking social science research. Roth shared in a Nobel Prize and a Golden Goose Award for his work.

In the late 1970s, the National Institutes of Health funded a group of Duke University researchers — Saul Schanberg, Cynthia Kuhn and Gary Evoniuk — to give massages to baby rats. Sounds like another obvious candidate for ridicule and Congress' red pencil, right?

That research team demonstrated that massage had strong positive effects on the rat pups’ growth. I saw possibilities for my work in the research. With support from the NIH, I was able to show that what is now called infant massage stimulates immediate positive health benefits for premature babies. Today, the therapeutic treatments that grew out of the Duke rat pup research have reduced time spent in expensive neonatal intensive care units and saved thousands of young lives and billions of dollars annually in healthcare costs.

No one can predict the outcomes of fundamental research or which projects will reap the largest rewards. But history demonstrates that funding meritorious research, as judged by independent scientists, is a recipe for success.

It's easy to make research projects sound frivolous to taxpayers. If we had allowed such caricatures to cut off the study of rat pups or theoretical marital matches in decades past, the country and millions of people would be considerably worse off.

Do we really want to use today’s budgetary restraints — and simplistic, cynical descriptions of funded research — to justify cutting off tomorrow’s potential breakthroughs? As a nation, we have always been smarter than that.

Tiffany M. Field is the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Health System. 

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