How Much NSF Funding Goes to Social Science?

Signing original America COMPETES
In 2007, President George W. Bush signs the original America COMPETES Act.

It’s expected that later this week some key portions of legislation affecting spending and research processes for the National Science Foundation will be reviewed by a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science, Space, and Technology panel. The social science community is watching the roll-out carefully, since recent legislative history rhetoric has seemed hostile to the disciplines.

Congressman Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the full committee, has drafted a bill dubbed Frontiers in Research, Science, and Technology,” or FIRST, to reauthorize programs of the NSF and several other federal agencies with research portfolios. FIRST follows up from his scuttled High Quality Research Act,and  is one of several pieces that address reauthorizing the omnibus American COMPETES act. That bill, passed in 2007 and renewed in 2010, focused on improving both funding and the environment for research at a number of federal agencies, including the NSF, NASA, the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Drafts of these various House bills — FIRST, the Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America Act (or EINSTEIN) for the Department of Energy piece of the pie, even an offering from the minority Democrats — have been circulating since the fall. And in the Democrat-controlled Senate, the reauthorization is expected to take the form of a single bill.

This week’s likely mark-up will probably address the appropriations and transparency portions of FIRST, including possible reductions in funding for NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences. Cuts from current levels would concern any agency, but with NSF the largest funder of social science research in the U.S. this an even greater concern.

NSF Funding trends
Click to enlarge. Specific amounts in spreadsheet below.
Source: AAAS Reports and agency budget data. Note: due to reorganizations, not all years directly comparable.

As the two graphs above and the spreadsheet at the bottom demonstrate, social science is a relatively small portion of the NSF total. In fact, while funding for the physical science, computer technology, and engineering dwarf the social sciences, funding for the SBE directorate has more than doubled the growth of NSF’s budget in the last decade, growing almost 19 percent to the NSF’s 8 percent. (These are all imperfect comparisons across years because of bureaucratic reorganizations, but the trends hold true.)

Concerns have been amplified by Smith’s rhetoric, which emphasizes that the federal budget can’t accommodate all sorts of research, and only the right kind should be funded going forward. Who decides what the right kind is? The talk suggests that congressional perceptions of a project’s intellectual merit matter as much, or perhaps more, than peer review.

“With limited funding, we must prioritize,” Smith and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrote in USA Today in September. “Congress is right to ask why NSF chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives.” Despite the chill reception their statements have earned, Smith and his generally Republican colleagues insist they aren’t “anti-science”: “Reprioritizing the government’s research spending in favor of improving Americans’ quality of life is not anti-science. It is common sense.”

In February, Smith’s line of attack was made more explicit:

After several months of meeting with National Science Foundation staff and various stakeholders to discuss changes to the agency’s grant award process, the agency still has not moved to meet acceptable standards of transparency and accountability to taxpayers for its grant-making decisions. Involvement by the National Science Board, the body that helps to establish policies for the foundation, may yet persuade its leaders to act. But it appears that legislation is the only certain means of achieving and sustaining needed changes at the foundation.

Many scientists, social, physical, and others, are starting to lobby to counteract those malign provisions that survive the sausage making.

‘Reprioritizing the government’s research spending in favor of improving Americans’ quality of life is not anti-science. It is common sense.’
– Lamar Smith

“If the threats to the behavioral and social sciences materialize when the House bill is introduced in the coming weeks,” Paula Skedsvold of the Federation of Associations of Behavioral & Brain Sciences wrote here last month, “scientists must be prepared to act.”

A number of lobbying organizations (some with financial help from SAGE, the parent of Social Science Space) are speaking up. For example, after looking over the draft of the bill, the Coalition for National Science Funding wrote Smith in December, outlining some of those specific concerns. (Click here for a copy of their letter.)

The coalition’s critique get’s very specific about what it sees as failing of FIRST. Two example give a taste of the four-page missive’s tenor:

–          “The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) continued support of the social and behavioral sciences are integral to the nation’s overall scientific and research enterprise. Thus, we respectfully request that section 105 be removed”’; and

–          “We are concerned that Section 114(4) requires NSF to establish procedures to ensure that investigators who have received more than five years of NSF funding are only awarded additional grants if they will be contributing ‘substantial original research.’ Terminology such as ‘substantial’ and ‘original’ places a greater emphasis on the potential outcome of a research proposal and does not recognize the incremental contribution that specific research results may make to a field of science or the serendipitous nature of unexpected results.”

It’s not just scientists who are squeaking. Over at the Petition2Congress website, there are currently 136 people who have e-signed a call to “Support Social Science Research at the NSF” (there’s as yet no similar petition on the White House’s We The People petition site):

It is important that the United States sees funding across all disciplines of basic scientific research supported by the NSF as a top national priority. Support for this goal should not include offsets that will force significant, detrimental tradeoffs between one field of research and another. We need to preserve our system of support for basic research based on scientific merit and peer review, without unneeded restriction and regulation.

NSF Funding trends spreadhseet
Click to enlarge

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