Cranky Thoughts on "Global Challenges" and the Social Sciences

Via the Monkey Cage and the Freakonomics blog, an article by Luk Van Langenhove in Nature about the future of funding for social science research. Van Langenhove’s argument appears take a return-on-investment perspective on the social sciences, and claims that we ought to fund the research that solves big problems in interdisciplinary contexts.

this enormous resource [social science research] is not contributing enough to today’s global challenges, including climate change, security, sustainable development and health. These issues all have root causes in human behaviour: all require behavioural change and social innovations, as well as technological development….some are up in arms over a proposal to drop a specific funding category for social-science research and to integrate it within cross-cutting topics of sustainable development. This is a shame — the community should be grasping the opportunity to raise its influence in the real world.

The author is a social scientist but seems unaware of the reasons why disciplinary debates exist and the point of basic research. Disciplinary debates—the good ones, not the personality conflict ones—exist because of real disagreement about how some aspect of the social world functions. The disciplines are well-poised resolve these disagreements. Basic research exists because, well, it’s basic: applied social research or social engineering will be for naught if it doesn’t build on solid foundations. I’m not sure how we could contribute to a big project to save the world without a good sense of what the expected outcomes of various interventions are, and I don’t know where these come from if not from basic research.

Basic social science (from Hayek to Scott) also gives us good reasons to be just a tad suspicious of the “social innovations” that this author believes social science research could produce.

I certainly don’t believe that social science research cannot or should not be relevant for whatever global challenge all the Thomas Friedmans are animated about today. But it is presumptuous to decide ex ante that funding for social research will be awarded on the basis of a committee’s beliefs about what constitutes a global problem and whether the social scientist is embedded in an interdisplinary effort to solve it. Basic social science should tell you exactly what sort of rent-seeking behavior that will incentivize, and what sorts of research will accordingly disappear.

On this note, there is also a poll at Freakonomics on which social science to eliminate. I will not participate until I get the chance to vote on which science to eliminate. Based on the fact that I don’t know much about chemistry, I didn’t like Mr. Zerbe (and he didn’t like me), and I just don’t understand how it relates to global challenges, I vote that we get rid of chemistry. Chemistry is just either a subfield of physics or a subfield of biology anyway. In today’s budget climate we have eliminate the redundancies, you can’t expect taxpayers to keep paying for beakers and reagents unless we’re solving climate change. You don’t get innovation unless you’re willing to destroy some sacred cows, and I am tired of the chemists sitting there in their lab coats—pfff, titrating—without working to solve the world’s problems, which will certainly require both molecules and particles.