$50 Million SBE Cut Moves Forward to the Full House


Eric Cantor
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says that spending scarce federal dollars on some social science ‘troubles him. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
A week after an amendment to further reduce the federal appropriation for social science basic research debuted, the full membership of the House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee confirmed the decision Wednesday evening. The bill and the amendment passed the full committee and will next go before the full chamber.

The action came as the panel completed markup of the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act of 2014, which re-authorizes federal funding for the National Science Foundation for the current fiscal year and next. Last week Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congressman from California, introduced an amendment that would cut funding for the NSF’s Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Science (SBE) from $200 million to $150 million. The amendment appeared to pass on an abbreviated voice vote at that time but an on-the-record voice vote was requested. That vote occurred Wednesday.

The result was expected; the only real suspense was in seeing how many members of the committee were seated and ready to vote when the roll call occurred. As it was, 20 Republicans were present and voted yes; 15 Democrats voted no.

Appropriations cut in offing?

FIRST is one of two bills alive in the House affecting NSF funding. A $51 billion Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill that sets aside $7.4 billion for the agency next fiscal year–compared to FIRST’s $7.2 billion and the roughly similar amount specifically requested by the NSF–is also being heard today.

While that appropriations bill does not currently include directorate-level language, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced that he endorsed an amendment to be introduced Thursday to reduce the SBE budget by $15 million. After stating that he supported work on biological and physical sciences, Cantor continued, “But I have been troubled that the administration has been spending scarce federal resources allocated to the National Science Foundation, not on these hard sciences, but instead on political and social science research, including, for example, the attitude of Americans on the filibuster, studying ‘what makes politics interesting,’ and how
politicians change their Web sites.”

To ease his distress, he promised that Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who heads the Science Committee, would be offering an amendment to delete the $15 million, which holds the funding at current levels, and reallocate the savings to “other research priorities.” According to Cantor, “This is the first step of many that I hope we will take to protect taxpayers while at the same time ensuring that high priority research is appropriately funded.”

Democrat Chaka Fattah, the ranking Democrat in the Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee, spoke in opposition to Cantor’s intentions, arguing that Cantor and Smith were “both misguided in this attempt to move away from world-renowned merit based selection process at the National Science Foundation. … If we want to continue to lead the
world, the last thing we want to do is to interject politics into the decision-making process of what basic scientific research should be supported.”

FIRST is an authorization bill, which grants permission to fund; an appropriations bill actually provides the money. And any bill that passes the Republican-dominated House must also navigate the Democrat-controlled Senate before making it to the president’s desk.

Social science lifeline

SBE is one of seven research-funding directorates at NSF. Traditionally, Congress sets an overall budget for NSF, then allows the agency to determine internally how to parcel out funding among the directorates. The FIRST bill authorizes specific allocations for each directorate, something last seen in 1998. Furthermore, while most of the directorates were authorized more money than they received currently, two—SBE and geosciences—received less. In SBE’s case, the debut incarnation of FIRST set funding at $150 million for the current and subsequent fiscal year, compared to the $256 million enacted budget for the current fiscal year. That amount was raised to $200 million in markup at the subcommittee level—on what seemed to be a unanimous voice vote—only to see Rohrabacher re-introduce the $150 million amount before the whole committee.

The cut is not symbolic. NSF estimates that it pays for 55 percent of the total federal support for university-based basic research in the social sciences. The cut for this year, however, is mostly for show, since the 2014 fiscal year will be drawing to a close should FIRST become law this summer.

The science community, including the National Science Board, have gone on record as opposing FIRST in its current guise, citing the unwanted intrusion into directorate-level allocations and the reduced amount going to SBE. (SAGE, the parent of Social science Space, has also gone on record as opposing FIRST’s social science cuts and directorate level budgeting) There are other concerns with FIRST from academics, especially on provisions that create new procedures for ensuring accountability in grant-making and in reporting results.

The Rohrabacher amendment was one of a series of votes on amendments to FIRST, all of which–sans one–were dispatched or promoted on purely party-line votes. A number of Democratic amendments that were shot down focused on the accountability measures, which academics argue are onerous and ill-conceived.

An amendment offered by California Zoe Lofgren to remove the directorate-level authorization also failed, as did one to replace the Republican-penned FIRST with an alternative bill offered by the ranking Democrat on the Science panel, Eddie Bernice Johnson.


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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