UPDATED: FIRST Bill Passes First Legislative Hurdle

Daniel Lipinski
Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a political scientist, offered an amendment to restore some of the social science funding pulled out of the NSF under the FIRST bill. It passed.

A bill that would dramatically reduce the amount of money that the federal government spends on social science research advanced after passing in a House of Representatives subcommittee on a party-line vote.

Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who heads the full House science committee and was an author of the bill, prefaced the Thursday morning mark-up session by saying the legislation funded national priorities and focused on spending wisely to foster innovation and improve competitiveness. The subtext is that social science doesn’t measure up to that standard, an implication that several Democrats on the subcommittee specifically rejected.

The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act of 2014(PDF here) is Republican-penned legislation that re-authorizes funding for a number of U.S. government agencies–in particular the National Science Foundation — that in turn pay for large swaths of the nation’s research landscape. The vehicle is re-authorizing the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which set out an ambitious agenda for revamping federal impetus to science and which was re-upped last in 2010. Republicans have split this re-authorization into two bills, with the second bill focused on Department of Energy spending they’d like to roll into a DOE-specific appropriation.

The original version of FIRST reduced the amount allocated to the NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate by 42 percent, to $150 million, in the 2014 fiscal year. While the committee shot down one amendment to restore essentially all the lost money, it did unanimously accept a second which backfilled $50 million of the difference.

As George Washington University political scientist John Sides noted in the Washington Post, because Republicans hold the majority in the House their bill is likely to survive future tests in the chamber:

The bill is expected to pass the Science Committee, most likely on a party line vote, which likely means it will be passed on the House floor in a similar fashion.  There is currently no equivalent bill in the Senate, whose actions with regard to H.R. 4186 will obviously be crucial.

Several aspects of the bill have drawn criticism–cuts to social science and geoscience funding, roll-back of President Obama’s proposals for increasing open access, greater congressional control of research spending, inadequate outreach to draw women and minority students into STEM programs, and seemingly picayune additions to the grant review process. (Social Science Space’s parent, SAGE, has gone on record opposing FIRST.) But it was SBE funding that occupied most of the session. That’s surprising in one sense — the SBE directorate makes up but 3.5 percent of NSF’s current budget. However, that fraction looms large in the academic world. According to the NSF, the directorate is responsible for 56 percent of the federal funding that SBE sector receives for basic research.

The failed amendment, sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, would have restored funding for both that directorate and for geoscience spending, which she described as repairing damage from an “unwarranted attack” sponsored by people she suggested were afraid of findings from those two academic sectors. (Geoscience, for example, includes climate-change research.) While that was knocked down on a party-line vote in the Subcommittee on Research and Technology markup hearing, a proposal by Illinois Democrat Daniel Lipinski to restore $50 million of the SBE reduction did pass unanimously. “I’d like to go higher, since this is still a significant cut,” Lipinski told his colleagues, “but I hope we can agree to at least this much of an increase today.”

Rep. Larry Bucshon, the chair of the House subcommittee, noted that Lofgren’s bill backfilled social and geo science funding by re-allocating some of the money the FIRST authors–Bucshon and Smith–had allocated to other fields. “There’s never enough money to do everything and we’re in particularly difficult fiscal times,” he said, arguing that Congress must prioritize its allocations as a result. Unsaid, however, is that FIRST sees Congress make spending decisions within the NSF; for years, Congress allocated a lump sum to the agency which then determined how to best spend what it was given.

Lipinski did offer an amendment, which failed, that would have stripped out all authorization levels in the bill, which in practice would have restored the NSF’s existing flexibility.

Another Lofgren amendment, to reverse the bill’s language that lengthened the embargo period before publicly funded research would be opened for free public access, was shot down. The roll call vote she requested provided the day’s only chip in party politics–Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie voted ‘present’ — rather than his peers’ ‘no’–on the amendment.

For his part, Smith emphasized the economic benefits of the legislation over supporting basic research. He argued that FIRST eliminates red tape, helps move innovation into the public sector, and promotes education in scientific, technical, engineering and medical sectors (collectively known as STEM). Smith noted that the bill brings computer science into the STEM fold, and “ensures taxpayer dollars as spent on high quality research.”

That “high quality” badge does not, in his estimation, include projects like $50,000 spent to study jurisprudence in Peru, circa 1600, or a $350,000 examination of how early human set-set fires affected New Zealand.

‘I’d like to go higher, since this is still a significant cut, but I hope we can agree to at least this much of an increase today’
– Daniel Lipinski

But Democrats on the subcommittee batted back by showing how social science projects –even some that seem off-kilter to outside observers – often help improve the human condition or the national economy. They also suggested that maybe Congress wasn’t the best judge of merit; “we need to fund basic research across all science disciplines” to improve competitiveness, said Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat from California.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the ranking Democrat on the science committee, said she “appreciated” the education aspects of the FIRST bill, but said “it sends the wrong message” about how to push science and innovation forward. Two areas she specifically noted were how FIRST “essentially locks in lower spending” compared to earlier blueprints for doubling government-sponsored research by a variety of future dates and how it specifically cut two subject areas—social science and geoscience—that produce results that many in the GOP are uncomfortable with.

Johnson argued the latter were ““politically motivated to appease conservative ideology” by “people who don’t believe in these sorts of science.” She has introduced a competing bill that reauthorizes America COMPETES. (Here’s a nice pre-markup comparison of the Democrats and Republican approaches.)

Washington state Democrat Derek Kilmer said he had “serious concerns” about funding levels that won’t keep up with inflation and that the appropriation only covered two years. “We can’t stay competitive unless we have longer term authorization outlook,” he testified.

Bucshon noted repeatedly that FIRST exceeded executive branch recommendations for fiscal year 2015. And FIRST does call for spending $25 million more in the NSF’s $7.2 billion than what’s currently on the table.

While FIRST clearly left a bad taste in the mouths of many Democrats on the panel, Lipinski nonetheless bowed to the inevitable party-line result and supported moving the bill out of subcommittee to the full science panel. “We need to make this a better bill as the process moves forward,” he concluded. A hearing before the full science committee has yet to be set, but with Congress in recess next week the earliest would be the last week of March.


House GOP Allows Some Compromise in Bid to Focus NSF on Economic Value | The Chronicle of Higher Education
First Step for FIRST Bill Exposes Party Differences | ScienceInsider
Battle Over NSF Begins | Inside Higher Ed

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