Social Scientists Swarm Capitol Hill for a Day

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Part of the role that Washington, D.C.-based scholarly societies and consortia have is to march up to Capitol Hill and at a minimum thank legislators for helping their institutions and disciplines and at maximum to fight out with those same legislators for support that is lacking or threatened.

Last week the Consortium of Social Science Associations, or COSSA, as part of its annual meeting, mobilized its members in a combined Social and Behavioral Science Advocacy Day on the Hill that combined the cordialities of meeting members of Congress with some hard-tacks requests to maintain federal science and statistical spending.

“The purpose of having an event like this is bringing people to town who don’t do this for a living,” explained Wendy Naus, COSSA’s executive director. “They’re not lobbyists of government relations professionals; they’re the researchers back home. COSSA exists to advocate on behalf of social and behavioral science and to get into the details on policy and funding and strategy, but what we can’t do is bring those messages about what research is happening in the local university [to the local legislators].”

By crafting a coordinated one-day event that represented multiple threads of the social and behavioral science community, this was a first-ever event for COSSA, “this first of what we hope will be many years of bringing the entire community together with a common message,” said Naus. All told, more than 60 members of the consortium met with staff or legislators in 84 different House and Senate offices. (Other advocacy efforts by the pros–such as the Coalition for National Science Funding and a new social and behavioral science campaign that includes COSSA–continue in full force.)

Although social and behavioral scientists have felt the hot breath of (generally Republican) legislators eager to deprecate or even dismantle federal spending on social science–think of the ‘Coburn amendment’ that axed spending on political science, for example—for years, the participants in this advocacy event avoided the rhetoric of conflict in delivering that common message.

The overall message, said Naus, was to connect the local practitioners with the politicians who represented their district, and to encourage the policymakers to tap into the resources offered by the researchers. Not that there weren’t some specific “asks” for the politicians: please maintain the requested funding levels for federal science agencies in the current debate over the budget, do all you can to reject cuts to social and behavioral science accounts, and by all means avert another round of sequestration. Sequestration—the across-the-board cuts in federal spending that part of the so-called “fiscal cliff”–“would not only hurt social sciences,” said Naus, “it would hurt everybody next year who relies on non-defense discretionary spending.”

Participants in the advocacy day visits generally reported that they experienced “no real push back against the social sciences” from conservative or red-state offices where concerns about spending on social sciences usually emanate. As one persona explained in an off-the-record debriefing, the legislators or their staffs generally understood that the National science Foundation and National Institutes of Health were agencies they could support, but those same legislators also demonstrated a strong budget discipline which could give a rationale for gutting some spending.

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Some old bugaboos will likely resurface in the current Congress, especially with Republicans controlling both chambers. The perception even after the visits is that social science funding is no more secure in 2015 than it was in 2014, despite the public amiability evinced between House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and NSF Director France Cordova. The bad news/good news scenario is that while the NSF’s social, behavioral and economic spending definitely will not be a priority for the House Republicans, no one is currently chomping at the bit to defenestrate SBE either.

A new version of the failed Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act, or FIRST, is expected to arise as legislators work to re-authorize funding for the NSF and other agencies. Portions of FIRST that divvied up the NSF budget to allow legislators to determine what kind of science gets funded (and swipes at social and geo science were written into the bill) were roundly condemned by the broader science community last year. Any son-of-FIRST that repeats that approach is unlikely to gain favor with the broader science community, observers believe, even as Smith has appeared to dulled some of the sharper edges in his rhetoric.

FIRST would take the place of re-authorizing the broader – and more widely popular — America COMPETES Act, and Naus said there was talk in the Senate of offering a “clean” COMPETES reauthorization in the current session.

On the whole, advocacy-day participants found conservative lawmakers were nice but noncommittal about preserving the social sciences. “Yes, we didn’t expect our first Hill day to move mountains in terms of changing peoples’ ideals or thoughts and beliefs systems,” said Naus. Instead, this was a first conversation to open the door to many members; “If you were in the room during any of those conversations, there was probably lot of dispelling of myths of what people thought social science really was,” she added.

One conversation reported at the debriefing shines a light on why such basic information is required. In talking over the NIH budget, a staffer wanted to ax programs “that don’t work.” Asked which those were, or how to identify them, the answer came back, “Everyone know which ones they are.”


COSSA’s annual meeting was sponsored by the American Educational Research Association, American Evaluation Association, American Sociological Association, Midwest Political Science Association, Princeton University, SAGE, and West Virginia University. SAGE is the sponsor of Social Science Space.

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