Sponsorship has more effect on the substantive content and method of social science research than it does on natural science research. This stems in part from differences, actual and perceived, in the relations of the natural and social sciences to public policy and policy makers. In the social science, the conceptual structure of knowledge is more intimately connected to the implicit social assumptions and political preferences of the various actors in the policy making process than is the case for the natural sciences.

“Society can never be a pure ‘object’ because decision-makers are part of it.”

The researches of social scientists lead to findings which may question or support basic assumptions of various publics and politicians about human behavior or human nature. Everyone is in his own view to some extent a social science expert and is less willing to grant the objectivity and political neutrality of social science finding than in the case of the natural sciences. Society can never be a pure “object” because decisionmakers are part of it. Thus, support for, and the direction of development of, the social sciences are more directly influenced by current social priorities and attitudes than is the case with the natural sciences.

The impact of the Cold War

The evolution of the social sciences has been heavily influenced by the fact that the science support system that developed in the United States after World War II was primarily a byproduct of the Cold War. In the debate surrounding the creation of the National Science Foundation, and in its annual budget justification after it was in existence, it is striking how the theme of basic research and advanced scientific training as the underpinnings of America’s military strength constantly recurs. Not only were recent results of basic research presented to Congress each year in terms of their possible applicability to military innovation (often in quite far-fetched arguments), but the overall program of the Foundation was constantly defended for it contribution to the nation’s supply of highly-trained manpower needed in the technological race with the monolithic Communist empire.

One of the most effective documents for eliciting congressional support for NSF’s budget was Nicholas De Witt’s study of Soviet scientific and technical manpower, published in 1956. According to J. Merton England’s history of NSF,1 the De Witt book made a profound impression on Congressman Albert Thomas of Texas, the forceful chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversaw the NSF appropriation each year in the House. After reading the book, which showed that the Russians were overtaking and surpassing the United States in the number of scientific and engineering graduates being produced each year, Thomas is said to have treated NSF budget requests much more sympathetically, and even pushed NSF into asking for more money for science education programs, particularly for summer institutes for high school science teachers.

“It is not surprising that there was little public constituency for the social sciences.”

Government support for research was thus viewed largely through the lens of the Cold War, and in this climate it is not surprising that there was little public constituency for the social sciences. Although a few liberal legislators, and a minority segment of the science community that was lobbying for government support of science, did push for a social science program to help solve some of the social problems facing American society, particularly the problem of unemployment, this view was usually associated with advocacy of a formula distribution of research funds, in contravention to the merit principle being advocated by most of the science establishment. An influential constituency in the science community that might not have actively opposed the social sciences became alienated, leaving the field to the conservatives. Many of the physical scientists who were most influential in shaping the NSF also feared that an active social science research program would produce a political backlash in Congress that would hurt the natural sciences as well.

The adoption of the natural science model

The period up to the mid-1960s was also a period when it was fashionable to believe that development in the natural sciences could be exploited to bypass many social and political problems. Alvin Weinberg and others popularized the notion of the “technical fix” which had the potential to cut the Gordian knot of many social and political conflicts.2 It was not until much later, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the environmental movement, that the term “technical fix” acquired a pejorative connotation and began to be used to belittle proposed technical solutions to social problems. The rapid adoption of new seed varieties by peasant farmers in several developing countries was frequently pointed to as an example of how new scientific ideas could confound the pessimistic assessment by social scientists of the ingrained conservatism of peasant cultures.3

Thus, as Henry W. Riecken has documented in his paper, “with little support from the communities of natural scientists and engineers, the National Science Board and much of the NSF staff, those seeking a share of the Foundation’s small budget for the social sciences had an uphill struggle.”4 Moreover, the fear of political backlash led to a restrictive and protective definition of social science eligible for government sponsorship. In the words of one 1954 Board report, social science, to be eligible for NSF support, “should be methodologically rigorous, important for national welfare and defense, convergent with the natural sciences, and characterized by objectivity, verifiability, and generality.”5 The notion of “convergence” with the natural sciences is one which recurs frequently in the debate over social science support in NSF. It means not only following the quantitative methodologies of the natural sciences, but also searching out topics where interaction with the subject matter of the natural sciences would be a significant element. Thus, one of the earliest non-natural science program in NSF was the programs in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. Although work in this area may have lacked the methodological rigor which was otherwise desirable, this was more than made up for by its close “convergence” with the natural sciences.

The impact of operations research and systems analysis

One government program, not in NSF, which had a profound influence on the evolution of the social sciences was the development of operations research and systems analysis for the purpose of improving the choice and employment of new weapon systems by the military. This is perhaps the classic example of how the idea of “convergence” influenced the social sciences. The best example is, of course, the Rand Corporation, founded right after World War II with Air Force sponsorship and a grant of working capital from the Ford Foundation.6

In the beginning, Rand was not at all an explicitly social science enterprise. Insofar as it had an intellectual genealogy, it was derived from the development of operation research, largely by physicists, as a new application of scientific modes of thought to determining the optimum tactical employment of weapons systems. But Rand evolved rapidly as a major center for young social scientists, particularly economists, but broadening into other disciplines over time. Rand not only spawned a host of imitators, but its alumni began drifting into key positions in academia, again particularly in economics departments. In time, all the military “think tanks” broadened their scope, and began to apply their approaches and methodologies to problems in the civil sector, for example in the management of urban services and of various social service delivery systems. The high-water mark was reached in the mid-1960s with the Great Society programs.

The Rand Corporation developed a branch, the New York City Rand Institute, that contracted with the administration under Mayor Lindsay to perform analyses of New York’s service delivery problems and improve the efficiency with which its human and physical resources were being used.7 It was a period of high hopes for the society-wide application of the techniques of “systems analysis” developed in the strategic field. President Johnson attempted to introduce systems analysis into the federal budget process through the new scheme of Planning Programming Budgeting (PPB), modeled after the use of systems analysis for weapons planning in the Pentagon.8

The “big science” model

“All of this was not precisely social science, or even applied social science…”

All of this was not precisely social science, or even applied social science, but it interacted increasingly with the social sciences, and stimulated the introduction of computer simulation and other quantitative and statistical methods into the more basic social sciences.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense proposed a “megaproject” in the social sciences known as the Cambridge Project.9 Conducted jointly by faculty and students at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the purpose of the project was to develop new methods and software for handling and analyzing large amounts of social data, and to develop model data banks for such data to demonstrate possibilities. The project was unclassified and not specifically oriented to the practical requirements of the Department of Defense although its need for being able to handle large amounts of data more efficiently was self-evident.

The project did go forward, after a good deal of controversy generated in the Harvard and MIT communities because of the Pentagon support. Although valuable work was done, I think it is fair to say that the project did not produce a breakthrough in the capacity for handling large amounts of social science data. Nevertheless, it is representative of the “big science” model to which the social sciences aspired in this period.

The Great Society social experiments

The next step in the same sequence of developments was probably the series of large-scale social experiments designed to explore the impact on employment incentives of a “negative income tax,” and similar experiments to test housing vouchers and school vouchers as alternatives for introducing market-like mechanisms into the administration of social programs.10 These expensive social engineering experiments were launched while the enthusiasm for the Great Society program was still near its peak, although on the decline. To some extent, the experimental approach was attempted because of a certain degree of disillusionment with the effects of full-scale social programs introduced without pilot experiments to explore their effects and to permit adjustments of the policy parameters in the light of such experimentation.

One could say, however, that the very possibility of such social experiments derived from the capacity to collect and manipulate large amounts of data that had been stimulated by the earlier military and similar programs. Thus, there seems to have been a discernible intellectual genealogy extending from the original Rand idea to the use of large-scale social experiments in designing new social programs.

Unfortunately, the social experiments were somewhat disappointing from a policy point of view, because the contemplated social policies from which they had derived their motivation had run out of political steam by the time the results of the experiments were available, and a number of the questions being addressed by the experiments were obsolete from the point of view of the different set of political options then being considered.

Foreign area research and Project Camelot

Another area in which the Cold War and the Pentagon interest in the social sciences had an influence was foreign area research. As Marshall Robinson has observed, the private foundation had tried to stimulate foreign area studies in the 1950s. At the same time, in the immediate postwar period the advice of social scientists, including cultural anthropologists, had been used by the military occupation in Japan, and by the US Navy in structuring the governance of the mandated Pacific Islands. It is alleged that the decision to allow the Japanese emperor to retain his position after the surrender was made on the advice of experts of Japanese culture and society.11

When “counterinsurgency” became a priority military objective in the mid-1960s, the military once again turned to the social sciences for advice, leading to the ill-fated Project Camelot. This was an Army-sponsored project, never fully implemented, whose ostensible purpose was to use American social scientists to study the social structure and politics of a number of Latin American countries with a view to anticipating the rise of social unrest and providing advice on the most effective use of American policies and resources to prevent its giving rise to developments adverse to our security interest. Although some rather good foreign area research was done under military sponsorship, Project Camelot itself was ill-designed and created very adverse political reactions both in the target nations and in the American social science community.12

There seems little question that the interest of the private foundations in foreign area studies was influenced in part by the same motivations that later led the military to take an interest in such research. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made for objective knowledge about the society and politics in parts of the world where American political or military intervention might be undertaken in the future. The lack of such knowledge, or rather the lack of its communication to decision-making levels, was certainly an important factor in the American fiasco in Vietnam, and the problems of US intervention in foreign areas with inadequate or just plain wrong information about the society and politics of the area still seem to be with us.

The radical critique

Attitudes toward sponsorship of the social sciences by government agencies seem to have come full circle. In the early postwar period, the social sciences and social scientists were seen as dangerous change agents, regarded with deep suspicion by politicians, and by a goodly segment of the natural science establishment. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the social sciences reached a peak of public and political optimism about their capacity to guide peaceful and relatively noncontroversial “social engineering” on a large scale. Beginning in the late 1960s, and probably partly stimulated by the military interest in and support of the social sciences, a new radical critique of the social sciences became popular, which identified them not with social change and reform but with preserving the status quo and existing power relationships.

The notion of a value-free social science, and the idea that scholarship could be “neutral” or “impartial,” came under severe attack.13 It was maintained that the values of the existing distribution of power and status in society are built into the underlying axiom of all the social science disciplines, so that systematic social science research, and particularly quantitative studies, is inherently conservative. Even when the social sciences purport to deal with options for social change, these options are subtly circumscribed so that choices involving a significant change in the existing power structure are never considered. Thus, government support of the social sciences in the postwar years began by being suspect because it was seen as promoting dangerous social change, but came to be suspect in the minds of many because it was believed to be an instrument for retarding desirable social change.

Harvey Brooks (1915–2004), a physicist, served on the National Science Board from 1962 to 1974 and as president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1971 to 1976. Dr. Brooks also served on science advisory committees in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 37, No 2-3 in the fall of 1983 as part of a symposium on the postwar history of the social sciences in the United States. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.

Posted on August 2, 2016