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Budget cuts and the politics of research

Here's another reason the dysfunctional federal budget process is bad for Americans: besides hurting the economy and hitting us in the pocketbook, partisan feuding over budget cuts could undermine our health and even shorten our lives.

That's because House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and others in Congress have been using the budget process to target research in the behavioral and social sciences for elimination, even though they're indispensable to understanding and improving Americans' health.

For example, a new University of Washington study reveals that life expectancy for American males varies by up to 18 years, depending on which county they live in. That's a remarkable range, and social scientists are just now mapping the social indicators to document it and put it in context. That research will show us where poor health is most concentrated, and how to target resources where they can do the most good.

The study of behavioral and social sciences is written into the mandate of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) "to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems … to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability." So why are they a particular target of budget cutters?

Perhaps it's because they study the behavior of real people and societies, so they're inherently political in a way that lab research in biology or pharmacology is not. They furnish actual evidence of real-world success or failure of a public policy in a particular area, which some politicians may prefer not to have.

In Mr. Cantor's words, "funds currently spent by the government on social science — including on politics of all things — would be better spent helping find cures to diseases." But that's a red herring. No amount of spending on new cures for diseases will equalize the 18-year discrepancy in life expectancy between men in Bolivar County, Miss., and those in Gunnison County, Colo. The real agenda is to defund behavioral and social science research that might be politically inconvenient or ideologically objectionable, in the name of giving budgetary "priority" to "basic" research that "cures disease."

Those talking points accompanied Rep. Denny Rehberg's attempt to strip NIH health economics research from the fiscal 2013 budget, and Rep. Lamar Smith's attacks on fiscal 2014 funding for National Science Foundation (NSF) research in behavioral and social sciences. They will get repeated this summer as Mr. Cantor and colleagues work the budget appropriations process to cut behavioral and social science research at NIH and NSF, portraying it as a gain for public health.

But it would be an unacceptable loss. Research shows that behavioral factors offer the greatest opportunity for improving health and reducing premature deaths. Behavioral and social sciences are mission-critical for a whole spectrum of public health issues, from improving hurricane and tornado evacuations to limiting the spread of infectious diseases to increasing longevity.

Recently, a study by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine drove home what few of us realize: Americans live shorter lives and have more injuries and illnesses than our counterparts in almost all other peer countries, and the gap has been widening for decades. Identifying the reasons why requires more research, but the study cites relevant behavioral and social factors: Americans consume more calories and drugs, use seat belts less often, have traffic accidents involving alcohol more often and own more firearms. We have earlier, riskier sex, more adult and child poverty and income inequality, and less upward mobility.

That list should make clear why closing the longevity gap depends on behavioral and social science research. It should also make clear why studies like this one and the University of Washington study would never be funded if Rep. Cantor had his way: they can be political dynamite. Such research doesn't flinch from controversial topics, and it can expose serious inequalities, both domestic and international.

It might be convenient for politicians if scientists didn't raise such issues, but that's what they're trained to do. No one disputes the importance of researching cures for disease, but solving our nation's health problems requires a coordinated strategy that brings all sciences to bear. If we want to defend scientific integrity, not to mention help all Americans be healthier and live longer, we must recognize and reject politically motivated efforts to defund behavioral and social science research.

Sandra Hofferth is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and director of its Maternal and Child Health Program. Her email is hofferth@umd.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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