Recently in the Times: the social sciences

Yesterday, Savage Minds Backup  (SMB) posted an excellent response to Nicholas Cristakis's recent op-ed in the NYT on the need to "shake up"  the social sciences. In it, he countered Cristakis's argument that we need less of the traditional social sciences and more cross-disciplinary work with the argument that in fact we need more, much more,  of the traditional social sciences. SMB marshaled some horrifying stats on the funding of the social sciences. We all knew they were low, but we didn't know they were that   low.

SMB uses the NSF as an example case. Of the organization's 5.5 billion USD to spend on research, the social sciences and behavioral sciences split  242 million USD, or four percent. Of that, the social sciences receive just 92 million USD (less than 2 percent of the NSFs budget). SMB concludes that for more innovative social science, we need much more funding. Beyond that, he barely mentioned that the discipline of Political Science has been deemed "not a science" by Congress and therefore no longer can receive NSF funds (95 percent of the discipline's federal funds).

SMB's point is well taken, and the lack of funding is certainly the greatest challenge facing the social sciences in the twenty-first century. But there are aspects not considered by Cristakis why individual social scientists may not want to risk inter-disciplinary work, as he suggests. I would ask him the following questions,

1. Are the natural sciences under attack from their own universities? A huge number of social science positions have been transitioned to adjunct, assuming that their only duty is to teach students, not do research. 

A 2007 article from the NYT reported: "Three decades ago, adjuncts — both part-timers and full-timers not on a tenure track — represented only 43 percent of professors, according to the professors association, which has studied data reported to the federal Education Department. Currently, the association says, they account for nearly 70 percent of professors at colleges and universities, both public and private. " Today, post financial crisis, the numbers are surely higher.

Scholars who are not neatly situated in their discipline risk losing their positions to adjuncts. 

2. Are there more opportunities for natural scientists who cross disciplinary boundaries? Certainly it is the opposite for social scientists. Despite the lip service to inter-disciplinary work, those scholars who do it will struggle to find venues to publish, and will therefore struggle in their tenure and promotion processes.

3. Are the teaching loads similar for social and natural scientists? I'd like to meet a biologist who does research at the same time as teaching a 4-4 course load with no TAs. Most natural science courses at universities at the undergraduate level are massive affairs, stocked with TAs and multiple choice exams. The professor need only show up and give a lecture he has given many times before and manage his TAs. He probably never grades a page in his life. I'm sure working with graduate students is more hands on, but still, it highlights the very different daily responsibilities that detract from work beyond just the course load.  

There are other questions to ask, but a blog post is not the place to do it. SMB's main conclusion, that Cristakis really doesn't know the history of social science nor understand the current conditions is certainly evident, but what does that say about social science's efforts at PR for themselves? We have to find a way to make our contributions and challenges  better understood by others both inside and outside of the academy or the situation will certainly not improve.