NSF’s Social Science Funding Almost Cut in Half in Draft Bill

Presidents sign COMPETES
America COMPETES in the past has been welcomed by both major political parties, with the original bill signed by Republican George W. Bush and the re-authorization by Democrat Barack Obama.

Ed. The America COMPETES re-authorization bill has just been made available to the public. This story will be updated as Social Science Space unpacks the draft legislation’s contents.


A new version of landmark legislation that has defined science research spending by the U.S. government for almost a decade has been released, and social science spending is — as expected — is in the crosshairs.

Click here to see a PDF of America COMPETES 2015 draft legislation
Click HERE for an analysis of the bill by the Consortium of Social Science Associations
Weigh in on H.R. 1806 at PopVov

The 189-page “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015’’ unveiled by the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology Wednesday sets specific budgets for the various research-funding directorates in the National Science Foundation. Traditionally, the foundation has set its own spending priorities for those directorates, but failed efforts last year by Republican legislators both set to establish Congressional control of those sub-budgets and set the budget for the Director of social Behavioral and Economic Science at more than $100 million less than usual.

This version of COMPETES renews that approach, calling for “$150,000,000 for the Social, Behavioral, and Economics Directorate, of which $50,000,000 shall be for the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics” in both fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Given that NSF allocated $272 million to the directorate in the current fiscal year (with NCES funding in that amount), this represents a 45 percent reduction. The statistics center had a budget of roughly $50 million in the current fiscal year, and so the mandate means the directorate couldn’t share the pain evenly from the reduction.

Opposition to the current bill, such as from the Consortium of Social Science Associations (a Social Science Space partner), has focused on the perceived political management of expert peer-review and the message that social science isn’t worthy of federal funding. “SBE, the smallest of NSF’s directorates, accounts for less than 5 percent of the entire NSF budget,” COSSA argues in a statement. “However, the SBE directorate funds approximately 55 percent of all university-based basic social and behavioral science research in the United States. Its impact is profound.”

The bill is expected to be “marked up” — which can dramatically alter the composition of legislation — on April 22. Because both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans, this bill likely will set the agenda for debates on science spending, even if the Democratic minority introduces its own version. Ultimately, the key fight will be over appropriations for the agency in the two-part federal budgeting dance — asking for the money (authorization) and actually getting the money (appropriations).

In the last Congress, no legislation re-authoring NSF funding ever passed, and the final spending allowance only occurred in the appropriations bill. In that Congress, the Republican-led House broke out NSF funding from any sort of America COMPETES update (the last re-authorization had expired in 2013), and neither that NSF-oriented FIRST Act nor nascent COMPETES versions ever gained much traction.

That FIRST Act — officially the Frontiers in Research, Science, and Technology Act — was roundly criticized by much the science community, including the normally genteel National science Board. That panel wrote, “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.’”

America COMPETES first was passed in 2007 and then renewed in 2010, always with bipartisan support. It’s first two iterations focused on improving both funding and the environment for research at a number of federal agencies, including the NSF, NASA, the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

All told, the 2015 COMPETES allocates $7.6 billion to NSF in the 2016 fiscal year, which is about $100 million less than the amount requested earlier this year by the White House. The bill specifically authorizes spending $6.2 billion on research activities. SBE funding under that scenario comes to 2.4 percent of the total NSF research budget.

In that White House proposed budget, the SBE directorate would see a greater percentage increase – 7.1 percent, or $19.3 million, above this year’s $272 million — than any other NSF directorate. However, its $291 million dollar requested budget is by far the smallest of any of the award-granting directorates in total funding. (The next smallest budget for a NSF directorate is the computer and information science directorate, with a requested budget of $954 million.)

The reduction in SBE funding had been expected by much of the science community. It follows several years of attempts by Republican legislators to eliminate spending they have characterized as a luxury in the most charitable assessments to wasteful in the most damning.

As Lamar Smith, the chair of the House Science Committee and the sponsor of the latest COMPETES, and Sen. Rand Paul, now a Republican candidate for president, wrote in a Politico op-ed in January, “Unfortunately, in recent years, the federal government has awarded taxpayer dollars toward research that few Americans would consider to be in the national interest.”

This need to safeguard the taxpayer dollar has been a key talking point in seeking greater oversight of grant-making decisions at NSF. The science community in turn has argued that politicized decisions are a poor safeguard for grants that have been peer-reviewed by subject experts.

The draft COMPETES does not give a reason for reducing the SBE funding and in one instances lumps it in with NSF’s other research portfolios as “important for the continued development of enabling technologies necessary for sustained economic competitiveness.” However, many physical science fields are lauded for their benefits to the national economy, in essence damning SBE with faint praise.

Scholarly societies and umbrella organizations in the sciences that vocally opposed the FIRST bill are unlimbering their pens to oppose this draft of COMPETES. Their favored line of argument is to stress the ‘national interest’ benefits of social science research. For example, in a letter to congressmembers drafted by the Federation of Associations in the Brain and Behavioral Sciences, this case is made: “The fundamental research funded by the SBE Directorate is critical to supporting our troops, improving the security of our nation, responding to disasters, understanding the link between brain and behavior, improving public health, understanding child development, and improving learning in science and across education.”

The letter also rejects the zero-sum game mentality in which a dollar that goes to economics automatically comes out of the pocket of physics, rather than looking at the total federal discretionary budget. “Leaders in the business, higher education, and the science and engineering communities have urged Congress to produce a COMPETES bill that does not ‘force significant and potentially detrimental tradeoffs between one field of science and another.’ This bill forces such a tradeoff and will essentially starve fundamental research that the nation needs, research that is very much in the national interest.”

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