UPDATED: Social Science Advocates Uniting to Oppose FIRST


SBE website
NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences gets a little over 3 percent of the foundation’s budget — but would lose almost half its current funding under the FIRST Act.

Citing concerns over congressional micromanagement and deep funding cuts to a specific part of the National Science Foundation, a coalition of academic organizations is lobbying to kill the nascent Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act of 2014 (PDF here).

The bill, known by its acronym of FIRST, is one of two pieces of legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that reauthorize the America COMPETES Act. That legislation, first passed in 2007, allocates money for research at many of the federal government’s non-defense agencies. According Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican and chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, “the FIRST Act protects NSF’s budget in order to keep America on the cutting edge of science.” FIRST’s two-year authorization would maintain the NSF budget at its current $7.17 billion for FY2014–yes, appropriations have already been made for this year–and $7.2 billion in FY2015.

But one part of the NSF budget—the part that funds the Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Science—is not protected, and would lose two-fifths in funding compared to its current fiscal year appropriation. In actual numbers, that would reduce SBE’s budget from FY2014’s $267 million to roughly $150 million. The SBE’s share of the total NSF budget is about 3 percent, but that little amount looms large — the NSF pays for almost two thirds of basic social science research in the U.S.

The SBE’s share of the total NSF budget is about 3.5 percent, but that little amount looms large — the NSF pays for almost two thirds of basic social science research in the U.S.

“The legislation fails to meet the guiding principles for reauthorization of the COMPETES Act endorsed last year by the business, scientific, and higher education communities,” complained the Association of American Universities, one of the organizations now speaking out. “Among the most important of those principles is to set funding targets for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology that permit real growth for these agencies to stimulate long-term economic prosperity. The proposed legislation does not even keep pace with inflation for these agencies.”

Those principles do not discriminate among disciplines, according to a July statement endorsed by dozens of universities and academic societies. “To ensure our national competitiveness, we need to maintain a strong foundation of basic research across all scientific disciplines, from the physical, mathematical and life sciences, to engineering, to the social, economic and behavioral sciences.”

A variety of academic organizations have been nervously watching the legislative process on academic funding unfold, especially as FIRST faces its first legislative test–markup in the science panel’s research subcommittee–at 9 a.m. ET Thursday. Last year, for example, Smith introduced his High Quality Research Act, which took at at the peer review process. That bill was eventually scuttled, but the concerns it raised, along with other persistent bits of legislation viewed as unfriendly to scientific inquiry, have kept the community activated and perhaps more importantly, united. (Among the members of the ad hoc coalition against FIRST’s cuts to social science funding is Social Science Space’s parent, SAGE.)

Smith argues that his bill ensures national competiveness by creating economic opportunity—and he specifically leaves out social sciences as helping do that. “To reverse this trend,” he wrote in an op-ed at Texas GOP Vote, “the FIRST Act increases investments for basic research in critical areas such as biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering and mathematics. Advances in these fields drive innovation, create jobs and keep our economy strong. Unfortunately, NSF has misused taxpayer dollars and funded too many questionable research grants – money that could have gone to higher priorities.”

Those questionable grants tends to focus on social science projects; some examples he cites routinely include $227,343 to study animal photos in National Geographic and $50,000 to look at lawsuits in Peru during the 17th century. Academics have bristled at such cherry-picking of weird-sounding projects, citing both tangible benefits from odd research and concerns that Congress would foist its version of intellectual merit over that of practicing scientists.

Opposition to the FIRST Act goes beyond pecuniary concerns. In a message to its members asking them to tell Congress to oppose the act, the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) also cites that idea of legislative interference:

The bill would also place a greater burden on NSF regarding its already-gold standard merit review process and require additional, potentially duplicative public disclosure of research grants. Further, the bill seeks to micromanage the grant application process and limit the number of awards that can be made to principal investigators, undermining the merit review process that successfully determines the very best science worth taxpayer support.

A release from the American Anthropological Association argues the bill “completely fails to meet the standards for science research and innovation that were set in the former version of the authorizing legislation.”

Due to the bill’s public access provisions, the open-access PLoS has gingerly stepped into an advocacy role over FIRST, which it calls a “Trojan horse”:

PLOS has never previously opposed public access provisions in US legislation but the passage of FIRST as currently written would reduce access to tax-payer funded publications and data, restrict searching, text-mining and crowdsourcing and place US scientists and businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Smith and Indiana’s Larry Bucshon are co-sponsors of the bill, which was officially introduced Monday. On Thursday the ranking Democrat on the science committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson (also from Texas), introduced a competing COMPETES reauthorization bill that was generally science-friendlier–and specifically name-checked social science as important. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science website, Matt Hourihan has a fine analysis of the competing visions, including this key takeaway: “In cumulative inflation-adjusted dollars, the Democratic proposal is $4.6 billion higher than projected agency growth rates under the current spending caps, and $1.4 billion higher in FY 2019 alone.”

A bulletin from COSSA’s analysts says the FIRST bill likely will sail through Thursday’s markup at Research and Technology Subcommittee on a party-line vote, while Johnson’s bill is not expected to advance. There is no current equivalent to the FIRST Act in the U.S. Senate, where the Democratic Party holds a majority and the reauthorization of the COMPETES bill will likely be attempted in a single bill — i.e. the one debuted by Johnson — not two.

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To follow the debate in real-time, opponents of the FIRST Bill are using the Twitter hashtag #VoteNoHR4186.
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RELATED LINKS
FIRST Act Puts Social Science Last | AcademyHealth
Support the NSF and prevent cuts to Social Science Research | Petition2Congress
Peer Review Is Time-Tested to Withstand Political Fashion Trends | American Anthropological Association
FIRST at Last: Controversial Bill Introduced to Guide U.S. Science Policies | Jeffrey Mervis at Science Insider
Legislation seeks to restrict NSF’s social science programmes | Nature
ACTION ALERT – Act Now to Protect Social and Behavioral Sciences Funding! | Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences
FIRST Act introduced with language severely undermining US public access | Scholarly Publishing and Academic Research Coalition
Why FIRST is a Trojan Horse | PLOS Opens
House Introduces FIRST Act, and It’s Still Awful for Open Access | Electronic Frontier Foundation


Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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