How concerned should the social science community be about the still substantial chunk of money missing from federal social science support in a hotly contested National Science Foundation reauthorization bill? According to Daniel Lipinski, the very conservative Democratic congressman whose amendment backfilled $50 million that even more conservative Republicans wanted to take away, a lot and a little.
In a phone conversation with Social Science Space, the five-term Illinois congressman reviewed the past, present and bit of the future of how the NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate (SBE) has been treated on Capitol Hill, and why he thinks the two-year reauthorization effort known as Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act will never be a dream bill for social sciences but might just be made palatable for him.
Speaking the day after a House subcommittee took the chamber’s first official look at the legislation, Lipinski said as a practical matter it’s almost too late to change SBE funding for the current fiscal year anyway. The so-called FIRST bill was supposed to primed for a vote last June, not this one, but by the time FIRST is passed out of the House—assuming it survives—the appropriations process for this fiscal year will be over and the status quo will have won.
‘I’d like to see authorization bills that are aspirational — then the appropriators can tell us what we get.’
Plus, he’d actually be surprised if the allocation stays as low as the $200 million he negotiated. “I have no question that it will go up. When the House Appropriations committee does their bill, I expect it to be higher because they tend to adhere to administration’s direction. Yes, even with the House controlled by Republicans and the Democrats in the White House, they tend to take a look at what’s being proposed by the White House as being the NSF’s request.”
Lipinski gave a particularly warm shout-out to Republican Frank Wolf, the retiring Virginia Republican who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the deal with NSF. “I’m sure there is pressure on him, but he stands up and does what he thinks is the right thing for science.”
On fiscal matters, NSF as a whole is being well-treated by both parties. Republicans don’t have any problem with research per se, he argued, even if they do have a bone to pick with social science—the $7.2 billion NSF budget would go up 1.5 percent next year, compared to a general increase of the federal budget of 0.2 percent.
Still, a FIRST fight ought to occur over SBE, he said. “I’d like to see authorization bills that are aspirational — then the appropriators can tell us what we get.”
In testimony Thursday and the interview Friday, Lipinski preferred to view the funding glass as, if not half full, at least as not completely empty. “It’s still not good,” he said Friday about the current state of FIRST, “but it is much better than it could have been.”
The Story So Far
Thursday was an unhappy day for those who think government should have a role supporting social science. FIRST had been introduced on Monday, and the Research subcommittee of the House’s Science panel was marking up the brand new bill cosponsored by Republican congressmen Lamar Smith, the Texan who chairs the full Science committee, and Larry Bucshon, an Indianan who chairs the subcommittee. FIRST is one of two bills the GOP plans to re-authorize the vaunted America COMPETES act, passed in 2007 and renewed in 2010, that allocates money for a huge portion of federally funded basic research. (Democrats in the House, but not the Senate, are shopping around their own version but it’s still in draft form.)
Many provisions of FIRST alarm members of the nation’s science and academic communities, who have formed ad hoc alliances to kill–or at least maim—the bill. From their perspective, there’s a lot to dislike in H.R. 4186, including its micromanagement of their domains, restrictions on public access to research, and how it drastically reduces funding for both the SBE and geosciences directorates. The fields covered by those directorates—two of the seven at the NSF—routinely generate findings that many Republicans either don’t like (gay marriage isn’t a parenting catastrophe) or outright reject (climate change is real).
As introduced, FIRST cut SBE funding by 42 percent, to $150 million, from current levels. The saved money is re-parsed to more technology-heavy directorates that the bill authors expect will produce more obvious economic return.
But science has its champions, too, and on Thursday the first to enter the lists was California’s Zoe Lofgren. Saying she hoped to “repair an unwarranted attack,” Lofgren introduced an amendment to rebalance directorate funding along traditional lines. That would have meant $256 million in the current fiscal year for SBE, which represents 3.5 percent of the NSF’s total budget. After Bucson listed how much the other directorates would lose, or rather ‘not gain’, from her proposal, the effort failed on a party-line vote.
Then Lipinski offered a less sweeping change to FIRST—just bring SBE funding up from the $150 million authorized to $200 million. On its face it seemed no more likely to succeed than Lofgren’s amendment. It passed on a unanimous voice vote, with Bucshon making sure his “aye” was the loudest heard. The higher figure is now part of the version of FIRST that’s going to the full Science committee.
The cut to social science funding is still very real, but 25 percent is less than 42 percent. The social science community sees almost any cut as serious, since the NSF pays for more than half of the basic research into SBE fields conducted by American schools.
Lesson From The Teacher
Lipinski isn’t quite a disinterested observer about the status of science. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees (Northwestern and Stanford) in engineering before getting a Ph.D. in political science (Duke) and teaching American government at the university level before entering Congress in 2005.
Asked if described himself as a political scientist, i.e. from the social sciences, or a mechanical engineer, i.e. from the STEM fields, he diplomatically answered ‘yes.’ “I probably mostly identify with political science because I got my Ph.D in political science and I taught political science. But I am a mechanical engineer and I am one of only 13 engineers in Congress, and that’s import to me. I bring that perspective to the science committee and Congress as a whole.”
When Democrats held the House, Lipinski helmed the subcommittee Bucshon now chairs; he was heavily involved in the 2007 birth of America COMPETES and in 2010 he wrote and shepherded the reauthorization of it.
He’s also a very rare animal—a Democrat who opposes gay marriage, abortion, Obamacare, and who didn’t endorse his party’s candidate for or president 2012. And while he may not always be popular with his party colleagues, he’s nonetheless in a very secure southwest Chicago district that was held by his dad, a noted blue dog, before him. That partisan blurring may have helped his case–Lipinski didn’t trade in polarized rhetoric at Thursday’s hearing, and he said his cross-aisle outreach has already paid dividends in ridding FIRST of its “most dangerous component”:
“I decided I wanted to work with Chairman Smith and Chairman Bucshon to make their bill better. In particular I wanted to make some changes in accountability portion. Last year, [Smith’s] High Quality Research Act put some terrible restraints into how evaluations for all proposals to NSF were going to be judged. While that bill didn’t advance, in November when the draft of the FIRST Act came out, it was very problematic that that accountability language they had [from the early legislation] was in there. So I worked with Bucshon and Smith to change that. I thought that was the most dangerous thing in the bill. That had potential to form longer-range problems for the academic world as a whole, and was happy I could get that changed in the bill.”
Next up was the SBE funding, which Lipinski said Smith had made clear he wanted to take and redistribute to the other NSF divisions. Lipinski said he took those statements at face value, especially since House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had made a speech to that effect. “My concern, and there was talk about this on the Republican side, was that they might ‘zero out’ SBE completely. And in the first draft of the bill, they had SBE at $100 million. I made it clear that I did not want to see SBE cut, and if they did cut it I would fight to raise that number.”
Lipinski said he and Smith did work together to raise it first to $150 million in the introduced version of the bill and to see the subcommittee OK the $200 million figure on Thursday. “I do give credit to Chairman Smith that he did work with me in good faith on some of these issues,” Lipinski said.
Befitting his former employment as government teacher, Lipinski offered a wealth of historical context that shows this isn’t an isolated skirmish to defenestrate social science, but a part of a longer-term genuine ideological opposition.
“There’s really been a move by some Republicans to promote idea that the social sciences are not as valuable and not as important as other science. This is not new,” Lipinski explained. “Back in the first COMPETES bill, in conference committee, all of a sudden at the end of process Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, wanted to zero out the SBE directorate,” i.e. give the directorate no money whatsoever. Democrats controlled the House at the time and the Senate was split 50-50, but despite that, Hutchison’s wish remained as an unexamined provision while the bill moved the last few steps toward passage.
But, Lipinski said, Brain Baird, a clinical psychologist who then represented southwest Washington state, noted the poisonous provision; he and Lipinski teamed up to excise it from the final legislation. “We came close to having it zeroed out 2007.”
Then there’s the so-called Coburn amendment from last year that put serious constraints on political science funding. That a Democrat-controlled Senate presumably could have swatted the restrictions down but somehow didn’t reinforces Lipinski’s intent to work from the center, not the sides. “I don’t have confidence that the Senate is going to make everything good, especially if the House comes out with a really bad bill.”
One of those bad things is that FIRST sets specific funding levels for the directorates in the NSF, as opposed to the customary practice of setting a budget amount and then letting the experts at the agency figure out where to best spend the money. While Lipinski sees it as “a bad precedent,” it’s not unknown; in the late 90s, he noted, it was part of a two-year NSF authorization bill pushed by then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay. After that experiment, however, the GOP backed off and the intrusion didn’t re-appear until now.
The future is a little cloudier. Lipinski rejected the notion that FIRST’s two-year window was designed to restart the discussion right after the mid-term elections, in which Republicans have been predicted to do well. Congress has grown practiced at dithering, he said, it’s generating more bills with short-term outlook because, he believes, federal-fiscal uncertainty makes any longer-range effort likely to founder on the facts.
For now, he plans on sticking to his campaign of geniality to protect science. “I’m generally that way and I generally believe that if someone is willing to work with you, you work with them to make things better. I’m in the minority, and I know that—but last time, I was able to right the bill.
“I’d rather have a seat at the table and have some influence than stand on the sidelines and just throw bombs.”
And, he concluded, a partial victory is better than a loss—especially if, as he fears could happen, the Senate doesn’t come up with a compelling COMPETE-itor. “[FIRST] may get to place where I could support that bill,” Lipinski said, “even though this will never be a bill that I don’t have any problems with.”