Seeking Champions for Social Sciences


Jousting knights
(Image: Bibliodyssey/Flickr)
From time to time America’s elites announce their concern with the dire state of education and science in this country (see A Nation at Risk, 1983). In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences decided that it was again time to examine the situation. A panel, chaired by Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, and which included Robert Gates (a future secretary of defense, Steve Chu (a future secretary of energy), and other distinguished scientific and education leaders produced a report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, that would serve as the blueprint for much of the science policy discussions of the next few years.

The report, focused again on the time-worn goal of keeping America competitive in a world where challenges were arising from all corners, especially the new colossus, China. The committee bemoaned the lack of emphasis in America’s schools on math and science and the underfunding of the physical sciences and engineering by the government’s science agencies.

Howard J. Silver
Howard J. Silver served for a quarter century as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Sciences Agencies. His blog appears monthly at Social Science Space.
A few key sentences in the report would create difficulties for the social sciences in the Congress’ attempt to fashion legislation that would address the panel’s concerns. They report recommended: “Special attention should go to the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and information sciences and to Department of Defense (DOD) basic-research funding. This special attention does not mean that there should be a disinvestment in such important fields as the life sciences or the social sciences (emphasis mine). A balanced research portfolio in all fields of science and engineering research is critical to US prosperity.”

The problem was that some members of Congress paid special attention to the first sentence and neglected the other two.  Key among them was Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who in 2006 chaired the Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that had jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation (NSF) as well as serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee that provided the agency’s actual funding.

Hutchison had already delivered a speech in late 2005 in which she proclaimed that the NSF was giving too much emphasis to the social and behavioral sciences. This was clearly news to those of us who advocated for these sciences and understood that they received less than 4 percent of NSF’s budget.

Nonetheless, in 2006, Hutchison used her platform as subcommittee chair to convene hearings that provided a forum for the authors of Rising Above the Gathering Storm to review the results of the report specifically with regard to the enhancement of funding for the physical sciences and engineering.

At the same time, the Senate, led by senators Lamar Alexander. R-Tennessee, Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, and Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, had begun work on legislation that would culminate in what became known as the America COMPETES (America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act. In addition, early in 2006, President George W. Bush had announced his American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), which was the administration’s attempt to implement the Gathering Storm recommendations. The ACI included a proposed 10-year doubling of NSF’s budget. NSF’s reauthorization enacted in 2002 proposed to double its budget in five years, but the appropriators would not cooperate.

In a hearing examining NSF’s proposed FY 2007 budget, Hutchison made clear her view that the social sciences did not belong at NSF. She suggested they might be put in another part of the government, although she did not articulate the destination agency. NSF should focus on basic research in the “sciences, mathematics, and engineering…I think NSF should stay focused on the hard sciences,” she declared. Like many of those who attack NSF, she asked the agency to provide abstracts of the foundation’s awards in the social and behavioral sciences.

Hutchison then decided to implement her views in an amendment, in a section called Priority Treatment, to an NSF reauthorization bill (which would later be folded into COMPETES). The amendment directed the NSF to assess its research awards and activities to include consideration of the degree to which “such awards and activities contribute to the enhancement of the Nation’s capacities in the areas of physical science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”

One of the interesting facets of the amendment is that in addition to excluding the social sciences it also omitted the biological and environment sciences. This meant that the social science community’s advocacy was joined by equally aggrieved biological and environmental science groups.

Working with the Consortium of Social Science Associations and its allies across the scientific and higher education communities, Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, stepped in and tried to eliminate the whole Priority Treatment section. Although unsuccessful, he managed to add language: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to inhibit the grant selection process for funding other areas of research deemed by the National Science Foundation to be consistent with its mandate nor to change the core mission of the National Science Foundation.”  This gave some solace to the social science community.

Meanwhile, when the NSF re-authorization surfaced on the House floor in May 2007, representatives Scott Garrett, R-New Jersey, and John Campbell, R-California, tried to defund already-awarded, peer-review grants because they considered the titles and the research “silly.” They were challenged on the House floor by representatives Brian Baird, D-Washington, a Ph.D. psychologist, who now chaired the House Basic Research Subcommittee, and Vern Ehlers, R-Minnesota, a Ph.D. physicist, who was now ranking Republican on the panel.

Baird questioned whether Congress, “with a cursory evaluation of the abstracts from studies, should insert ourselves in the peer-review process.” He suggested members do not have the expertise to make such judgments.  Ehlers echoed these sentiments, suggesting he “learned long ago never to judge the research by the title of the proposal.” The defunding amendments were beaten by voice votes.

In 2007, the COMPETES legislation finally made it to a House-Senate conference committee. Then Science Committee Chairman Representative Bart Gordon, D-Tennessee, had shepherded the bill through the House. The Hutchison-Lautenberg compromise was still in the bill. However, Baird, a member of the conference committee, adamantly held out his support for the legislation without further language changes. He demanded and got his colleagues to agree to insert the words “social sciences” into the Priority Treatment paragraph of the section of the legislation on “Meeting Critical National Science Needs.” This paragraph would now list all the sciences NSF supports as a priority. He also added the words “safety and security” to “competitiveness or innovation” as those critical subjects where this research priority applied.

Two lessons emerged from the enactment of COMPETES in 2007 and the thwarting of Hutchison’s attempts to get the social sciences out of NSF. The first was the importance of Champions, both for science in general and the social sciences in particular.  Without Baird, Ehlers, and Lautenberg countering Hutchison, the outcome could have led to difficulties for the social sciences at NSF. Second, as I noted in my September column, elections make a difference. The retaking of the Senate by the Democrats in 2006 diluted Hutchison’s power as she no longer chaired a committee with the ability to set its agenda.

Eight years later, as COMPETES (which was reauthorized in 2010 without much attention to the social sciences) comes up again for reauthorization, the same arguments raised by Hutchison have been renewed by the current House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, ranking member of that panel, has picked up Baird’s social science champion role by strongly opposing Smith’s positions and tactics.

Still, the list of those members of Congress who speak out in support of these sciences is small.  Representatives David Price, D-North Carolina, and Dan Lipinski, D-Illinois, two political science Ph.D.s, and Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, have also defended these sciences in committee and on the House floor. Senator Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, who chairs both the full appropriations committee and the subcommittee that funds NSF, has defended NSF’s peer review process.  Senator Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, spoke out against renewal of the Coburn Amendment restricting NSF funding of political science. So, the search for more champions continues.


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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Kitty Smith

Add my Representative, John Sarbanes (D-MD), to the list of champions.