How Public Perceptions of Social Science Affect Funding

Sociologist Roberto Hugh Potter argues that research funding is skewed towards projects that have commercial applications. His article might help us consider why certain scientific endeavours are better supported by public funding. I’ll go on to discuss how the social and natural sciences can better engage public interest and support for our research.

Potter argues that the social sciences are mostly located in the not-for-profit sectors, so we attract less funding. This includes tackling the social causes and rehabilitation of crime; substance abuse prevention; mental health services; family welfare and other social issues that are “invisible.” Potter writes that the fact that our work is largely positioned outside the realm of popular interest is partly the fault of the social sciences, as we do not publicly market our skills and experience well. In large part, however, lack of public engagement is due to the way in which the media and public discourses value scientific innovation.

Space exploration is a popular news item that is often discussed positively. It sparks the public imagination because the media discusses this as a penultimate example of human excellence. But drug addiction, mental illness, poverty and other social issues are only ever discussed in negative ways. The news blames victims; it uses social issues to scare rather than enlighten. For example, mental illness is something to be feared rather than understood as a valid human experience that requires community support and ongoing research. We only hear of crimes (largely involving minorities) but we don’t always hear about the social stratification that leads to particular crimes. (Not to mention the fact that we seldom hear about the everyday crimes that involve elites unless it’s some sensationalist murder case.) We rarely hear about the successes – the community programs that are achieving results.

Potter’s piece made me think about the recent case where the American media whipped up fury about federal funding into research about duck reproduction habits. Initially, all we heard was that money was being “wasted” on “duck penis research.” The researcher who led this research team, Patricia Brennan was forced to publicly defend her work: “As a scientist, my view is that supporting basic and applied research is essential to keep the United States ahead in the global economy.” The same could be said of any research program for any nation on earth. In response to the controversy, Carl Zimmer argued that science is often used in “culture wars” to advance political agendas without an understanding about the fundamentals of research and its future potential. He writes: “Basic research can lead to applications, but we don’t know in advance what particular studies will or won’t do so. That’s because we have much left to understand about how the world works.”

We have a broad-ranging problem in the social sciences: our research is not well regarded because both our “basic” and “applied” streams are poorly understood by the public – but we are not alone. There are other research fields that are also neglected and judged against a fantastical set of criteria, as if science is only worthy of funding and public attention when it cures diseases or sends humanity into the stratosphere. The reality is that scientific innovation is impossible without the everyday work of scientists who work on a multitude of issues. You can’t cure diseases effectively if you don’t understand the role of social networks in the spread of disease. Space exploration requires social science input to assist in the training of researchers, who come from diverse cultural and scientific backgrounds. Astronauts, for example, face intense psychological and communication issues in carrying out their work effectively. Similarly, as Zimmer notes, duck genitalia might reveal much we don’t know about evolution and perhaps shed light on human reproduction. Similarly, learning about the social influences on crime, illness and other social connections feed back into other fields of science, social policy and improve quality of life.

I see that the social and natural sciences should work together to better market our research. We need to tell our own stories and engage the public through accessible methods. This is one thing that has attracted me to blog, and more specifically to write for Science on Google+. I know how busy we all are – but if we all told our stories more often – once a week, once a month or whatever we can manage – addressing the wider benefits of our research, we might help to dispel the social myth that some elements of scientific discovery have higher value than others. I used to tell my students, back when I was still teaching, that science is like links on a chain. We each build on the work of others, and no link is insignificant, otherwise the chain is weakened.


Patricia Brennan, “Why I Study Duck Genitalia

Carl Zimmer: “Meet the Culture Wars

Image: Mosman Council Flickr, remixed by me for Sociology at Work.

First published on Science on Google+