NSF Funding Bill Report Includes Two Curious Items

UPDATE: The full House Appropriations Committee met Thursday, May 8, and made no amendments that affected the draft bill’s language on the NSF’s Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences funding or that overtly affected social and behavioral science in general.


Some language in the current appropriations bill that includes National Science Foundation funding seems to contain 'dog whistles' that concern the social and behavioral science community.
Some language in the current appropriations bill report that includes National Science Foundation funding seems to contain ‘dog whistles’ that concern the social and behavioral science community.

The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up legislation funding  the United States government’s commerce, justice, science, and related agencie for the 2015 fiscal year on Thursday at 10 a.m. Eastern. That bill in turn sets the funding for the National Science Foundation, which in turn provides 55 percent of money for the university-based social and behavioral research in the U.S.

The bill increases the funding for the NSF in the next fiscal year to $7.4 billion, which is 3 percent higher than the current year’s budget — and 2 percent higher than what the agency requested. Of that amount, $6.0 billion is specifically allocated for research and research related activities, which is 3 percent above both this year’s spending and what NSF sought. If it becomes law, this appropriation would create the largest budget NSF has ever had.

Despite these increases, social and behavioral science organization have been watching the budget process nervously, in part because of a Republican-sponsored authorization bill,  the Frontiers in Innovation, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST), which reduces spending for two of the seven research-funding directors at the NSF: one that supports social, behavioral and economic science, or SBE, and one that supports geoscience (which would include much climate research).

That FIRST even directs how the NSF parcels out its research budget among the directorates is unusual and, to both social scientists and NSF overseers, threatening. Congress has specifically authorized directorate funding in the past, but has left it to the NSF itself for the last two decades. There are some peculiarities to FIRST, in particular that it authorizes funding for two years — including the fiscal year already well under way. So even though any reduction in SBE or geoscience would essentially be moot, the modern precedent would be established. (One popular analogy of the two-step authorization/appropriations process is that authorization is telling your children they can go to the movies, while appropriations is giving them the money to do so.)

The current 123-page draft appropriations bill does not include FIRST-like language. But an an accompanying report offering “explanation” of the bill does contain two provisions that are leaving the science community scratching its collective head. Three paragraphs into the section dealing with NSF (starting on page 77), the following appears:

Program changes.—Unless otherwise noted elsewhere in this statement, the recommendation incorporates all program reductions and consolidations proposed in the [research and related activities] budget request. Any increases provided above the request and not otherwise specified below shall be applied to math and physical sciences; computer and information science and engineering; engineering; and biological sciences.

Notable by their absences are the SBE and geosciences directorates.

The second item raising eyebrows is notable for specifically citing SBE:

Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) sciences.—Longstanding congressional concerns persist about the merit of activities funded through NSF’s SBE Directorate. In order to address these concerns, NSF must ensure that SBE awards are consistent with NSF’s scientific quality standards and aligned to national interests. The Committee recognizes the intrinsic value in SBE sciences and the direct responsiveness of SBE activities to Committee priorities, including studies on the effects of youth exposure to media violence and the collection of data for STEM education indicators.

While not alarming on its face, language about the quality of research is common in several recent Republican-led efforts to restrict or reduce funding for government-sponsored social science, which suggests it may be a sort of “dog whistle” heralding future attacks. For example, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, the author of FIRST, has said, his bill “expands accountability and transparency requirements so that only high quality research receives taxpayer funds.”

The language also suggests an interest in mediating what is acceptable and what isn’t by legislators, and not scientists. This is something the National Science Board, which directs the NSF, feared was woven into FIRST, a concern that led the board to issue an unusual letter critical of the bill:

Our greatest concern is that the bill’s specification of budget allocations to each NSF Directorate would significantly impede NSF’s flexibility to deploy its funds to support the best ideas in fulfillment of its mission to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.”

And while it would be the odd researcher who would plump for low-quality research, Smith (and other GOP legislators) have examples that are routinely cited of social science research they don’t feel measure up to public funding:

Unfortunately, NSF has misused taxpayer dollars and funded too many questionable research grants – money that could have gone to higher priorities. For example, how does the federal government justify spending over $220,000 to study animal photos in National Geographic? Or $50,000 to study lawsuits in Peru from 1600 – 1700? We all believe in academic freedom for scientists, but federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used on such research instead of on higher priorities.

The Appropriations Committee hearing will be webcast live. Click here for the bill documents and a link to the webcast.

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