House GOP Officials Slap at Social Science Funding

Smith-Cantor amendment
The complete text of the Smith-Cantor amendment

Calling it only the “first step,” two prominent Republican congressmen called for freezing federal funding for social science research paid for by the National Science Foundation.

Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, as promised, introduced the amendment to the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill to “zero out” the requested 6 percent increase in funding for the NSF’s Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Science in the next fiscal year. The legislators then called for restoring the money saved–$15,350,000—back to the NSF for physical science and engineering research.

Their amendment, however, does not specify that the cut, or freeze, would specifically target the SBE directorate, nor that its restoration exclude SBE. The appropriation bill does not specify funding for any of the NSF’s seven research-grant funding directorates. Instead, it merely sets aside $5.9 billion for all of them.

The goal of the move, Smith said on the floor of the House of Representatives, is to “encourage NSF to apply higher standards when approving its grants.” Smith then approvingly cited a bill approved Wednesday by his Science committee that authorizes funding for NSF and specifically reduces funding for SBE by 42 percent–from the current year’s budget of $256 million to $150 million.

“That’s where we think the discussion out to start next year,” he added.

Echoing a press release he sent out earlier in the day, Smith said, “The SBE directorate has funded too many questionable grants. For example, when the NSF pays a researcher more than $227,000 to thumb through pictures of animals in old National Geographic magazines, taxpayers feel as though the NSF is thumbing its nose at them. And the NSF refuses to provide information for why these grants are in the national interest. Congress should not reward frivolous use of taxpayer money with even more money.”

The amendment passed on a voice vote, and a later on a recorded vote (breakdown HERE). While battle lines on SBE funding seemed to fall along partisan lines, five Democrats voted for the amendment and 18 Republicans voted against.

The full $51 billion appropriations bill, House Resolution 4660, passed on a 321-87 vote (breakdown HERE) late in the session, around 1 a.m. Friday, and now heads to the U.S. Senate. (There are three versions of NSF funding making the rounds: the Science committee authorization bill, which calls for a $7.2 billion budget; the requested budget from the NSF itself, slightly less than the Science bill; and the appropriation amount. Normally a bill that calls for spending money requires both authorization and appropriation, although in a pinch appropriation alone will suffice.

Frank Wolf, the esteemed retiring chairman of the Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, and the legislator essentially shepherding the floor debate, gave his blessing to the Smith-Cantor amendment. The Virginia Democrat point out that the bill under debate set NSF funding at an all-time high — $7.4 billion — in a bill that as a whole cuts spending $400 million compared to the current fiscal year. “NSF must exercise caution in grant awards,” he stated, then added the pragmatic observation that the House was controlled by Republicans and this amendment represented the will of the majority.

Nonetheless, several Democrats stepped up to support social science spending, with the ranking minority member of Wolf’s committee, Chaka Fattah, speaking first and calling the amendment “misguided” and an attempt to “put handcuffs” on the NSF’s experts. He called the NSF’s peer-review grant selection process the envy of the United States’ economic competitors, and argued that “the notion that we would want to eliminate certain investigations by the NSF into economic or behavioral science” was bizarre and potentially disastrous.

“I can’t imagine for the life of me why we would be on the floor debating a retreat in behavioral science or economic science.”

Several other legislators came to bat for SBE in debate on the next amendment to reach the House floor, a proposal by Rep. Paul Broun, whose district includes the University of Georgia at Athens, to strip $67 million for the NSF’s non-research budget. While that amendment failed on a voice vote — and seemed at odds with the bipartisan effort to increase NSF funding and promote education in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields — it did give a platform for more testimony in favor of social science research.

Responding to Broun’s insistence that he was just trying to save taxpayer money, North Carolina’s David Price opined that “we shouldn’t be wasting taxpayer money on policies that are not based in evidence-based research.” Saying that “taking cheap shots” at silly-sounding research has become a parlor game in the Legislature, he noted that broad swath of national priorities that have been influenced by NSF-funded political science research.

That same theme of going beyond the quirky title of a grant to see how it played out in policy or practice also informed testimony by physicist Rush Holt, a physicist who represents a district in New Jersey. Citing criticism of bills that studied fruit flies or game theory, he cited the example of a grant that funded research into library science that “turned out to be the basis of what we now know as Google.”

Later in the debate, in the 11th hour of a session that started at noon, individual NSF grants started to attract scrutiny. Republican Matt Salmon, a Republican from Arizona, introduced an amendment killing funding for a specific NSF grant — $931,000 to investigating the socio-economic effects of climate change on tea in China. Supporting Salmon’s amendment, Louisianan Steve Scalise called the grant “ludicrous” and a “great example” of a bad grant. While Fattah again cited the inadvisability of pushing politics into peer-reviewed decisions, the amendment passed on a voice vote.

Paul Gosar, also an Arizona Republican, then introduced an amendment meant to rein in NSF grants, albeit via not funding gun registries. However, Wolf argued that the amendment was out of order because it tried to create new legislation in an appropriation-only bill, and the amendment was killed.

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