COMPETES Bill That Halves Social Science Budget Passes House


[Ed. – This story is being updated.]

Republican-penned legislation that among other things cuts in half National Science Foundation funding for social science research passed the House of Representatives today on a 217-204 vote, with 23 Republicans joining House Democrats in opposing the bill. Before the vote, the White House had said it would veto the bill in its present form.

The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 sets funding limits for most federal agencies that fund basic research, including the NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the research arms of the Department of Energy, for the next two fiscal years.

The vote came the same day that a bill appropriating money for the National science Foundation – with a report attached also whacking social science funding – passed its originating committee.

While two previous COMEPETES bills, from 2007 and 2010, were hailed as bipartisan examples of furthering the nation’s economic development, the current version has drawn strenuous opposition from Democrats and more than 70 science organizations that had heartily endorsed the earlier laws have gone on record opposing this iteration.

The aspects of COMPETES have drawn particular fire from social scientists — that the funding of specific research directorates in NSF is set y legislation, instead of at the discretion of NSF; and that the Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences is specifically targeted for cuts.

The $16 billion bill includes more than $7 billion for the NSF, which traditionally pays for more than half the basic research in social and behavioral science that occurs at universities. And while the bill increases spending overall for the NSF, it calls for spending $150 million on NSF’s Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, 45 percent less than what is being spent this year and 58 percent less than what President Obama has sought. (The bill also cuts spending on geosciences by about 10 percent.)

“This is the most anti-competitive legislation that could be put on this floor,” argued Maryland Democrat Donna Edwards.

According to the bill’s sponsor, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who heads the House Science Committee, says the bill prioritizes research “in the national interest,” which in his estimation does not include most research in the social, behavioral and economic sciences and much in the geosciences (i.e. the part that studies climate change). “Real priorities require making choices,” Smith was quoted after the vote. “[This bill] proves that we can set priorities, make tough choices and still invest more in breakthrough research and innovation.”

Speaking on the House floor today, Smith explained that his legislation “requires all taxpayer dollars to be spent on high-value projects,” and that past NSF grants that paid for things like a musical on climate change or research examining animal pictures in National Geographic magazine did not measure up.

The two examples are part of a master list of about a dozen anecdotes that Smith and other Republicans on the House Science Committee have trotted out over the last two years as evidence that social science is not in “national interest.” That tactic drew a rebuke from Wednesday from Illinois Democrat Bill Foster, a physicist, who criticized the “cheap shots” that don’t investigate the underlying scholarship. “It’s easy to make sun of projects with funny-sounding titles or strange names,” Foster said, but funding such projects is what has made the NSF the gold standard of research grantee.

In addressing one section of the bill that requires all NSF-funded grants to be in the “national interest,” Foster said he opposed that request because it “inject[s] a political filter into the scientific review process is a dangerous proposal.

As Foster has explained in the past, “While Section 106 may seem innocuous to some, given that the [Smith] has already requested the full portfolios for more than 70 grants that he or his staff seems to have deemed as potentially not in the national interest, it seems reasonable to call this language significantly political. The two-year campaign by the chairman has sent a significant chill across the entire scientific community, not just in the social and behavioral sciences, but in all fields. … I worry that the major purpose here is wanting to hold NSF officials personally accountable for funding decisions that the majority happen to disagree with, perhaps on ideological grounds.”

An alternative to Smith’s bill that included restoration of social science funding was introduced by Eddie Bernice Johnson, the Texas congresswoman who is the ranking Democrat on Smith’s committee, but that bill failed on a mostly party line vote.

Earlier Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee passed a $51.4 billion bill that funds the Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, NASA, NSF, and related agencies. It increases the NSF’s research budget by $50 million compared to the current fiscal year, but that is still more than $200 million below the requested amount from the NSF. Worryingly for the social and geophysical sciences, the bill directs that  “NSF to ensure that Mathematical and Physical Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Engineering; and Biological Sciences comprise no less than 70 percent of the funding within Research and Related Activities,” which essentially cuts those other directorates.

Pennsylvania Democrat Chaka Fattah, a noted proponent of brain research, complained that the appropriations bill “disproportionately reduces” funding for social and geo sciences, adding that he’d originally planned to offer an amendment to the bill to remedy that but was holding fire until he bill advances in the House.

John Culberson, the Texas Republican who chairs the Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science did not oppose Fattah’s impulse on its merits. Instead, he said he opposed it because it has “no offset” – that under spending caps in force to increase the amounts requires identifying what must be cut so there is not net increase in spending.


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