Cutting social science funds is misguided

Interdisciplinary collaboration is essential for well-rounded solutions to social issues.

Camille Galles

College of Liberal Arts students, take note: One of the nation’s top lawmakers has just declared your major to be of little worth. House Science Committee Chair Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is renewing a Republican push to restrict national funding for the social sciences. 

Such a restriction would have disastrous consequences for the entire nation, not just those who study the liberal arts. Social science research is essential to bridging the gap between new technology and the people who desperately need it. Neither social nor scientific study can be classified as “more important” — they gain functionality only through each other.   

Consider the z-Lab, a brand-new disease-screening device developed by University of Minnesota researchers, Mayo Clinic staff and industry partners. The handheld device needs only 15 minutes and a single drop of blood to detect the presence of many diseases. Z-lab is cost-, labor- and time-efficient, making it an ideal tool to screen patients for diseases early with the potential to save thousands of lives.

But the z-Lab device is useless unless the people who need it can access it. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection reveal that in 2012, more than one-third of women diagnosed with cervical cancer died — despite the fact that 93 percent of cervical cancer cases are preventable.

But for the more than 8 million women who weren’t screened in 2012, early cancer detection and treatment were never options. As our medical and scientific technology continues to improve, it is essential that they remain available for everyone.

That’s where the sociologists, political researchers and other social scientists come in. These kinds of experts might not know how to operate z-Lab devices, but they could show you which regions of the country desperately need them.

Social scientists can examine additional data — such as the fact that 25 percent of those women with cervical cancer didn’t have a regular health care provider — and determine the economic, transportation and awareness barriers that prevent people from getting treatment.

Furthermore, there’s no way that scientists alone can develop an effective health care system that has bipartisan support. We need people trained in political science and policy work for that. Without the input of experts in the so-called “soft sciences,” medical technology remains stagnant.

Money is a limited commodity, but actively targeting the social sciences for budget cuts is a horrible idea. A new report about structural inequality and barriers to health care won’t save lives, but neither will a z-Lab device that remains only in elite medical facilities.

Scientific and social research depend on each other and on appropriate levels of funding. Prioritizing certain research disciplines over others won’t magically provide health care, much less jobs or education to those who need it. Unequal funding will only result in an unequal society.