Can Federal Funding for the Social Sciences Survive in 2015?


John Culberson
John Culberson, a Republican from Houston, Texas, is the new chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science. He’s been a strong supporter of science education and NSF funding in the past, but has also voted for the amendment to defund political science research.

As I suggested in an earlier column, elections have consequences. The results of the 2014 congressional elections – Republican control of the Senate and increased Republican majorities in the House – could make it easier for the continual attacks on federal funding for the social and behavioral sciences, particularly at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to succeed. Already, former Representative John Porter, R-Illinois, who once chaired the panel that funded NIH, told a gathering of advocates for research funding that the social sciences at NSF and NIH are dead in the next Congress.

The danger points will come at two stages in the congressional process. There is the authorization stage, where Congress proscribes in law what agencies like NSF and NIH can do. Then there is the appropriations stage where Congress actually provides funds for agency programs and structures.

Howard J. Silver
Howard J. Silver’s blog appears monthly at Social Science Space.

In its attempt to continue the authorization for NSF contained in the America COMPETES Act, the current Congress will probably not reach any conclusion. For two years, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee under its Chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has sought to challenge NSF’s peer review process and the agency’s funding for the social and behavioral sciences. This has raised the ire of the Democratic leadership on the Committee, led by Ranking Member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and resulted in many advocacy efforts by the scientific community.   The election results should further embolden Chairman Smith.

In the past two years, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over NSF, has held some hearings, drafted legislation, but has not moved much further. The Committee’s current chairman, Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, will retire at the end of this Congress. With the GOP takeover, Senator John Thune, R-South Dakota, will take the reins of the panel in 2015. However, this committee has such a large jurisdiction that there may be other issues that push reauthorizing America COMPETES to the back burner in 2015. Yet, one cannot ever be sure.

A larger danger may loom in the appropriations process. The final FY 2015 spending bills have not been enacted. The ‘continuing resolution’ currently funding the government expires on December 11. Congress’ lame-duck session should bring that process to a close. Congressional leadership would like an up or down vote in both the House and Senate on a comprehensive, omnibus package that would include spending for all agencies. Whether this solution to the spending problem can happen easily, in light of conservative anger over President Obama’s executive order on immigration, remains to be seen.

Next year has the prospect of more difficulty. Once again, the Republicans will try to restore “regular order” to the appropriations process and try to pass each of the 12 individual spending bills.   NSF funding will begin its journey in the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee. Its new chairman will be Representative John Culberson, R-Texas.   Although, he has been a strong supporter of science education and NSF in general, he voted with the majority to defund political science in 2012. (This was the amendment sponsored by then-Representative Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, that did not become law.) He also voted this year to support Chairman Smith’s amendment to transfer NSF funding so that the social and behavioral sciences got less. The House floor will remain a dangerous place for funding social and behavioral science with similar amendments likely.

The Senate situation remains perhaps more stable with Senator Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, and Senator Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, flipping positions to make the latter the new chair of the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee. The Senate floor with its new GOP majority will also make amendments concerning social and behavioral science funding, previously sponsored by the soon-to-be-retired Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, more of a possibility.

So what is to be done?   Many social and behavioral science groups, including the Consortium of Social Science Associations, have joined with the rest of the science and higher education community are roaming the halls of Congress talking to members and their staffs trying to inform and convince them about the importance of our sciences.

However, this Washington, DC-based strategy needs supplementing. Social and behavioral scientists in colleges and universities need to join the effort. This includes ensuring that deans, presidents, and boards of trustees, as well as research and government relations offices, get the message that these sciences are endangered and need the full weight of the university behind them.

State and local officials who have benefited from the results of research in these sciences are another target for advocacy. In addition, key operatives with Republican connections, such as pollsters, political consultants, and researchers who provide the GOP with their policy prescriptions should also be brought into the effort.

Finally, Congress needs to hear from the private sector. In 1989 hearings, the vice president for research at General Motors testified on behalf of the importance of the social sciences to his company. With socials scientists populating high-tech giants such as Google, Yahoo, and others, these voices need to be heard. In addition, those companies, such as the geographic information systems, or GIS, industry, whose fortunes are linked to the basic research supported by NSF (such as the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis), need to speak up.

All of these groups generally have higher priorities and given the current political situation getting the proper response will not be easy. However, the importance of the continuation of support for the social and behavioral sciences for our nation’s security and prosperity will make the effort worth it.

This is my last column of 2014, I will return in early 2015 to chronicle the new Congress and its actions regarding the social sciences.

I wish everyone a joyous holiday season and all the best for a happy and healthy 2015!


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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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