So It Goes – Travails of Science in Latest Congress

Lamar Smith
Texas Republican Lamar Smith is the chair of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
During the 1986-87 television season ABC broadcast a show called Our World, hosted by Linda Ellerbee and Ray Gandolf. Airing opposite The Cosby Show, it was the lowest rated show of that season. The premise of Our World was to take a time period – a day, a week, a month, a season – and present through film and other artifacts what was happening in the world at the time, e.g. October 1956: The Hungarian Uprising, the Suez Crisis, and pitcher Don Larsen’s perfect game. Despite its low ratings the show was a critical success and schools around the country used it as supplemental material for their history classes. Ellerbee would sign off the show with her signature line she had used through most of her news career: “And so it goes.”

Philip Converse in 1985. (Photo: Institute for Social Research)
Philip Converse in 1985. (Photo: Institute for Social Research)
If one looks back over the past week or so, what would make it onto a future Our World (a complete fantasy in today’s TV landscape!)?  We continued to learn that fighting wars with unmanned drones, like most weapons, brings unintended and tragic consequences. Another massive shaking of the earth in a faraway place at the top of the world again brought massive death and destruction. More than 18 months before the next presidential election, the punditry blathered on about which candidate is up or down and we got to learn what Donald Trump said in a gathering of 19 possible Republican contenders in New Hampshire. Finally, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. Once a failure with a camera that wouldn’t work, the Hubble is now a triumph of exploration and scientific achievement.

Finally, it was a week, where a consensus on U.S. science policy that produced two major pieces of legislation, the America COMPETES Act of 2007 and its reauthorization in 2010, collapsed as a partisan bill – House Resolution 1806 — emerged from the House Science Committee and make an attempt to shift how the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy operate.

Fed up with over a year’s delay in moving his version of the reauthorization of the American COMPETES legislation, House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Representative Lamar Smith, R-Texas, brought his 2015 version to a markup by his panel. “The bill,” Smith claimed, “is a pro-science, fiscally responsible bill.” As he has been determined to do since he took over responsibility for overseeing NSF in 2013, in the bill’s 187 pages Smith targeted the Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) as being not as worthy as the other sciences supported by the foundation. The bill first reverses recent tradition and sets specific funding levels for directorates rather than providing a lump sum for research grants, then it reduces its authorization for SBE from the current fiscal year’s funding level by 45 percent. In Smith’s phrasing, the legislation “prioritizes funding for the directorates of Biological Sciences, Engineering, Computer and Informational Science, and Mathematical and Physical Sciences.”

Smith also targeted NSF’s geoscience directorate and cut its authorization by 8 percent. Geosciences gain this distinction because their scientists conduct research on climate change. During the markup of the bill by the Science panel, an amendment offered by Representative Eric Swalwell, D-California, expressed the Sense of the Congress that “climate change was real” and that “human activity contributes to it.” The committee accepted the amendment after Chairman Smith and his GOP colleagues removed the second clause. While the social sciences have often been the subject of budget cuts, natural and physical sciences rarely are. And targeting Geosciences is different from one of those rare earlier times when some members questioned why NSF was funding biology, since the National Institutes of Health, whose budget was four times that of the foundation, focused on that area.

The ranking member (the senior member of the panel from the opposition party) of the Science Committee, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, contrasted what Chairman Smith was doing with the enactment of the original COMPETES bill in 2007 and its reauthorization in 2010. Those laws enacted policy, Johnson noted, that “focused on reinforcing America’s commitment to the sciences across the board.” In contrast, she declared, the current bill “seeks to pit different scientific disciplines against one another and to prevent research in fields to which the majority is ideologically opposed.”

She and her Democratic colleagues proposed numerous amendments to correct what they saw as flaws in the bill, including those cuts to the social sciences and the geosciences. The Republicans stood firm and defeated all amendments that would have restored the NSF’s flexibility in allocating its research funds. Despite the lobbying efforts of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) and its members and many other groups in the scientific and higher education community, which held numerous meetings with congressional staff, Republicans did not retract their vision of what NSF should be supporting amid a blizzard of letters and statements of opposition from scientific societies and higher education institutions including the American Physical Society, the Association of American Universities, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, COSSA, and many others. Chairman Smith and his GOP colleagues did not budge. Lobbying is sometimes the beating of one’s head against a wall that will not move.

The bill most likely will make it to the House floor sometime next month, where it will likely pass the Republican-majority chamber. Right before the markup, Chairman Smith issued a joint statement with Senator John Thune, R-South Dakota, the new chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, announcing their commitment to enacting a reauthorization bill. Whether Thune will accept Smith’s priorities is an open question and there are senators who will fight against it, perhaps even some Republicans.

Yet, in the end the White House may have to make a judgment on whether to sign this bill, which may remain quite flawed. One of its other current egregious provisions prevents using the results of Department of Energy-supported research to produce regulations. If a veto decision must be made, we may see whether the administration’s up-to-now strong commitment to the SBE sciences will prevail. And so it goes!

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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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