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.