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Commentary: Coburn strikes again...

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 02 June 2011

My erstwhile colleague Meredith Niles beat me to the punch on this one. But surely the bastion of rational thought exemplified by the "Under the Microscope" report deserves additional commentary!

Senator Coburn supports his recommendation to eliminate the social sciences from the National Science Foundation with the following example: "But do any of these social studies represent obvious national priorities that deserve a cut of the same pie as astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, physics, and oceanography? The recent tragedy in Japan highlights the importance of nearly all of these natural sciences and how a better understanding of each can improve our abilities to protect life and property from natural occurrences such as earthquakes and tsunamis."

Thank you Senator Coburn for the ammo! Social science is a crucial tool for studying the social processes linked to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. To believe otherwise is truly contrary to even the most casual observation. For example, when I was in Australia in early 2011, I toured the flood-damaged areas around Brisbane. Neighbors saved each other's lives during the flash floods in the upper watersheds. People waited in hours of traffic to get into Brisbane to help complete strangers clean up after the flood. The evolution of this type of altruistic behavior is the subject of social science. Even if we had perfect predictive models from the natural sciences about when a flood or earthquake would occur and the extent of damages, these social relationships are crucial for getting people out of harm's way especially in the short-term. In addition, how all of the different government agencies work together is crucial at all stages of disaster management, and also an important topic of social science research. Without integrated social, physical, and natural science research on topics like disaster management, Coburn will never understand how to make policies that improve social welfare in such contexts.

And I could go on...and will! Another project in Melbourne, Australia examines how social networks buffer individuals from the mental health problems associated with bushfire damage. This is an excellent example of how interdisciplinary, integrated scientific research can try to solve crucial problems facing society. Coburn should definitely go spend some time visiting with the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the current Mississippi floods and other disasters in the US to get an inkling of how social relationships and human psychology play a role. Of course the interactions between risk perception and public policy play a large role in explaining why people choose to live in risk prone areas in the first place.

Such integrative approaches are not limited to Australia, but are happening all over the world including the National Science Foundation. The most innovative scientists recognize that no single scientific approach alone can solve the grand challenges facing US and global society, ranging from finding the cure to cancer to global climate change. NSF programs like coupled-human natural systems are one example, but it doesn't take a senate staffer to find many more. Some of the other agencies viewed more favorably by Coburn, like NIH and USDA, are also on board with these more interdisciplinary approaches.

It is also interesting to note the types of research that Coburn picks on the most: virtual societies and political behavior. Come on! We're in the middle of the information and digital revolution here! Almost every fundamental social and economic interaction has found some niche in cyberspace and has a huge impact on human welfare. I have no idea if anybody has tried to put a dollar sign on this, but the number will be very large (understatement of the year?). As for political behavior, I guess Coburn doesn't really believe it is important to understand how democracy works. Apparently he has it mastered, including how to use negative publicity to damage his political opponents. While he has certaintly cherry picked a few projects that seem a bit silly on the surface, not to mention selecting particular quotes out of context, there is no doubt that social scientific analysis of virtual interactions and political decision-making are crucial inputs to policy decisions. And the case is even more obvious for the environmental challenges currently posing threats to global economic, environmental, and social welfare. Coburn's political posturing might win him votes from his base, but will not solve the budget crisis, and will ultimately damage society's capacity to respond to emerging issues. By the way, did you know that social network analysis helped capture Saddam Hussein?