David Brooks: keep government funding for social science research

Last Thursday, David Brooks made a case for retaining government money for social science research:

Fortunately, today we are in the middle of a golden age of behavioral research. Thousands of researchers are studying the way actual behavior differs from the way we assume people behave. They are coming up with more accurate theories of who we are, and scores of real-world applications. Here’s one simple example:

When you renew your driver’s license, you have a chance to enroll in an organ donation program. In countries like Germany and the U.S., you have to check a box if you want to opt in. Roughly 14 percent of people do. But behavioral scientists have discovered that how you set the defaults is really important. So in other countries, like Poland or France, you have to check a box if you want to opt out. In these countries, more than 90 percent of people participate.

This is a gigantic behavior difference cued by one tiny and costless change in procedure.

Yet in the middle of this golden age of behavioral research, there is a bill working through Congress that would eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced — by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits.

Here is what I think works in this column:

1. The examples are interesting and address important issues. I wish there were more people highlighting interesting research in such large venues.

2. The idea that a small research investment can have large results.

3. The reminder in the last paragraph: “People are complicated.”

Here is where I think this column could use some more work: why exactly should the government, as opposed to other organizations or sources, provide this money? (See a counterargument here.) Brooks could have made this case more clearly: there are a lot of social problems that affect our country and the government has the resources and clout to promote research. In certain areas, like poverty or public health, the government has a compelling interest in tackling these concerns as there are few other bodies that could handle the scope of these issues. Of course, many of these issues are politicized but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the government shouldn’t address these issues at all.

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