Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks to social scientists.

@Chris Flynn

On their side. Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks to social scientists.

Senator Warren Says Fighting for Science Is a Top Priority

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

The only U.S. senator to receive a research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) says one of her top priorities in her first term is to increase federal support for academic research and eliminate restrictions on NSF funding for political science research.

Speaking yesterday in Washington at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) issued a full-throated endorsement of the value of basic research to the nation—and to her colleagues in the U.S. Congress. “When policymakers tie the hands of social science researchers,” Warren said, “they are tying their own hands."

Although Warren did not refer by name to Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), she pulled no punches in attacking his March amendment to a government-wide spending bill that requires NSF to certify that every political science grant is relevant to economic development or national security. “It makes my teeth hurt to talk about” the Coburn amendment, she confessed to an appreciative audience.

Warren said that legislators have no business imposing special requirements on the social sciences that do not apply to the other scientific disciplines. “Congress would never tell the National Institutes of Health what biomedical projects are and are not worth funding,” she thundered. “It would never tell NSF not to fund university chemists out of a fear that they might discover something that policymakers would prefer not to know.”

“Social science research is a compass for policymakers,” she added. “It points us in the right direction.” Placing restrictions on what NSF can fund, she warned, “will threaten the ability of Congress to make good decisions by cutting off the pipeline of rigorous analysis to identify what policies work and what policies don’t work.” Warren said she was confident that Congress “will eventually” remove the Coburn language, but that the timing is uncertain. “The question is how long it will take.”

Warren cited her own work as an example of how NSF-funded research can overturn conventional wisdom and give policymakers fresh insights on important societal issues. In 1983, NSF’s Division of Social and Economic Sciences awarded $110,000 to Warren, then a law professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and two colleagues, Teresa Sullivan and Jay Westbrook, to study why people go into bankruptcy. Their work led to an influential book, As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America.

“It exposed one of the major misconceptions of the causes of bankruptcy,” she explained. “We showed that it was not irresponsible spending … but life events such as a serious illness, job loss, or the breakup of the family.” Warren said that “I’m just one of many scholars who have used NSF funding to change how we think about the economy, human behavior, our communities, and our political structure.”

The speech was Warren’s second in a week touting the value of basic research. On 28 October, she told the Boston Chamber of Commerce that Congress needs “to double our investment in scientific and biomedical research and create more year-to-year certainty for that funding.” Both steps are important, she told the COSSA audience yesterday, if policymakers hope to make “good choices… that will actually solve problems.” Otherwise, she said, “we’re doing some expensive guessing” about how to fix what ails the country.

Warren is a rising star in the Democratic Party. After a long career in academia, including some 15 years on the law faculty of Harvard University, she came to Washington to advise President Barack Obama on consumer finance reform during the global financial crisis. In 2012, she was the first woman elected to the Senate from Massachusetts. Her committee appointments included a spot on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel, which oversees many issues of importance to the research and academic communities.

Warren said she has decided to make research one of her legislative priorities “partly because it’s not an area where others will fight … and partly to pay back for the investments that were made in me as a young scholar.” But she told the audience that she can’t do it alone. “You are our best hope. If we are allies, we have a fighting chance.”

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