How Ronald Reagan Helped Advance Social Science

Reagan and Stockman
Back to the future: Ronald Reagan and his budget director David Stockman proved to be unintentionally key players in creating a suite of lobbying organizations for evidence-based research disciplines.

I have been asked to contribute to Social Science Space because for over 30 years I was a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. promoting attention to and federal funding for the social and behavioral sciences. For all of that time I was at the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), the last 25 as its executive director.


Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs produced what some considered a “golden” age for the social and behavioral sciences when their ideas were taken seriously and translated into public policy. Of course, this produced a backlash when the conservatives began their rise to power in the late 1970s. An Ohio congressman, Republican John Ashbrook, often took to the floor of the House of Representatives to question funding for this kind of research. There were also the Golden Fleece awards from Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wisconsin, which were given to individual federally funded projects the senator believed were frivolous. The singling out of “unworthy” individual projects would remain the favorite tactic of those opposing this research.

Howard J. Silver
Howard J. Silver served for a quarter century as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Sciences Agencies. His blog will appear monthly at Social Science Space.

COSSA was founded in 1981 (two years before I arrived) as a response to the first budget presented by newly elected President Ronald Reagan and his budget director, David Stockman, that proposed to reduce the budget for the social and behavioral sciences at the National Science Foundation by 75 percent. Economist Martin Anderson, a Reagan adviser, also played a role in this proposal. (Opposition to federal funding and the denigration of the research by individual social and behavioral scientists would remain a continuing problem.)

To respond to these threats, the major professional associations in the social and behavioral sciences, along with the Social Science Research Council, decided to establish a lobbying organization and that became COSSA. Around the same time, the behavioral science community organized the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, and the statistical community, the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, which would also contribute to these efforts.

The basis for the proposed Reagan-Stockman cuts appeared to be that social and behavioral scientists were liberals who conducted research to support liberal programs. The proposed cuts generated press attention through the activities of the National Science Board, the National Academy of Sciences, the Social Science Research Council, and COSSA and its member groups. The press pointed out that “White House Uses Social Sciences, But Cuts Funding for Research,” (Washington Post, June 29, 1981). This seeming paradox would recur in later year during attempts to make members of Congress understand that they are constantly using social and behavioral research in their activities, from campaigns to committees to floor votes. This argument sometimes gets grudging acknowledgment, but has not acted as a deterrent to those who attack the research results.

Although the congressional appropriations committees in 1981 refused to accept the proposed Reagan-Stockman cuts to the social and behavioral sciences, the chair of the Senate subcommittee, in its report language, used words we have become accustomed to in the past 30 years, including the recent report of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Committee. This was the language in 1981: “The central core of the NSF program is properly research in mathematics, physical and biological sciences and engineering; increases for budgets of these directorates are appropriate…future growth in support of behavioral and social science should be based on compelling evidence of achievement and promise.”

The culmination of the effort to beat back the Reagan-Stockman cuts occurred on an amendment by Rep. Larry Winn, R-Kansas, to restore the reductions rejected by the appropriators. On a 264-152 vote, the Winn Amendment failed. The majority included 69 Republicans. In 2012, only 27 Republicans voted against the Flake Amendment to defund the political science program, an amendment that did not survive in the Senate.

The COSSA-led efforts by the social and behavioral science community begun in 1981 resulted in a slow comeback for these sciences that would culminate in the early 1990s with the creation of NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate in 1991, the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research in 1993, and the creation of a position within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the same period.

These offices could not stop the attacks, but provided institutions with whom COSSA and the community could work with to thwart them. Other groups such as the Coalition for National Science Funding would also create synergies between the social and behavioral science community, the rest of the science and engineering community, and the higher education community that would serve us well.  I will explore this further next month.

One last note: The primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, has led to a grasping for explanations. Reviving former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s notion that “all politics is local,” many have blamed Cantor’s loss on ignoring the district and focusing on his national constituency.  On the other hand, the New York Times tells us that “Population Shifts Are Turning Politics National.”  I believe the majority leader lost to Dave Brat, an economics professor with a Ph.D. from American University, because of Cantor’s continued attacks on the social and behavioral sciences. My own little fantasy!

(My memory on some of the points in the article was helped immeasurably by Otto Larsen’s Milestones and Millstones: Social Science at the National Science Foundation, 1945-1991, Transaction Publishers 1992, and early editions of the COSSA Washington Update (born in 1981 as the COSSA Legislative Report).

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Howard J. Silver

Howard J. Silver served as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) in Washington, DC, from 1988 to 2013. He has testified before Congress, spoken on federal funding of science at many professional meetings, and written extensively on executive-legislative relations, the federal budget process, and science policy as it affects the social and behavioral sciences.

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Thomas F. Pettigrew
Thomas F. Pettigrew
5 years ago

I recall Reagan at a press conference, answering a question about
Federal funding of the social sciences, blurting out in anger,
“Why fund the enemy?”

Do you recall this? And if so, do you know the date of this

Tom Pettigrew, Research Professor of Social Psychology
University of California, Santa Cruz

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