Noose Narrows on NSF Social Science Funding

Options for changing legislation that would almost halve social science funding from the National Science Foundation narrowed Monday as the Rules Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives condensed 45 proposed amendments into 12 in preparation for the bill’s debut on the House floor Wednesday afternoon.

House Resolution 1806 re-authorizes funding for most federal science agencies apart from NASA. The $16 billion bill includes more than $7 billion for the NSF, which traditional 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.)

In a hearing Monday, the Rules Committee set up the ground rules in the floor debate of the legislation. Several amendments that were especially toxic to social scientists, including the blow to SBE and the introduction of congressionally set allowances for each directorate (as opposed to creating a pot of money for all research and letting NSF decide where it is best spent), did not make the cut. However, a replacement bill sponsored by Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas was approved for debate. That bill redresses those and other sticking points in 1806, but — as a Democratic alternative in a chamber ruled by Republicans — is unlikely to pass.

HR 1806 is dubbed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, hearkening to bipartisan bills or 2007 and 2010 that were widely hailed and generally lauded by universities, scholarly societies and academics. That is not the case this year, with the president, a plethora of societies and even SAGE, the parent of Social Science Space, taking positions against the bill.

“When stakeholders oppose legislation meant to help them,” New York’s Louise Slaughter, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, intoned Monday, “we need to reconsider.”

The White House has gone on record as “strongly opposing” 1806; a veto message argues “undermines key investments in science, technology, and innovation and imposes unnecessary and damaging requirements on Federal support of research” and would in fact damage competitiveness, not enhance it.

The bill’s authors, Lamar Smith of Texas, told the Rules Committee that he’s merely trying to make sure the government spends taxpayer dollars on grants that are in the “national interest.” In that interpretation of what the nation needs, he explained “we cut social sciences but we increased spending on hard sciences because that’s where the real breakthroughs occur.” Smith then cited several SNF grants – funding a musical on climate change, studying human-caused fires in New Zealand, studying tourism in Norway—that have long been hobby horses for Republicans criticizing social science spending. “That’s why,” he added, “we felt some of the social sciences could be cut slightly.”

Smith, who chairs the House Science Committee, repeatedly used the phrase “hard science” –a fingernails-on-chalkboard coinage for many social scientists–as a proxy for important science. He also stressed that by cutting funding for climate change research in other areas of the bill he was bringing spending “into balance.”

On Tuesday, when the Rules Committee’s “structured rule” on the bill arrived on the House floor to be adopted by the whole chamber, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Washington, hailed HR 1806’s “reprioritization of basic research” into “core physical sciences and biology.” The bill, he said, sets the “right priorities.”

Colorado Democrat Jared Polis rebutted Newhouse’s statements at that Tuesday session, pointing out that the “titans of research” oppose HR 1806. “They’re saying don’t give us this bill. This will hurt science in our country … scientists are saying, ‘Go home federal government. We don’t want this bill’” He asked for a “a science bill that maybe scientists support.”

In fact, a number of science and research organizations have bones to pick with 1806 that go far beyond social science or even just the NSF. For example, the Alliance to Save Energy opposes the bill thanks to cuts in energy efficiency research, while the Truman National security Project fears restrictions on biofuel research could hamstring the military.

Congresswoman Johnson, the ranking Democrat on the Science Committee, also appeared before the Rules Committee on Monday. She complained that the bill has been rammed through the House so far, with no subcommittee hearing, just an abbreviated mark-session a week after the 187-page document emerged from behind closed doors. “This legislation, in its present form, is not something any of us would be proud of,” she concluded. (Smith, speaking on the House floor Tuesday, argued that hearings with the NSF director when she presented the president’s budget request to the panel, and discussions on similar bills in the last Congress, showed that the bill did not appear out of nowhere.)

Slaughter also attacked the bill, stating that its authors are ideologically driven and are more concerned with questioning the motives of NSF and the scientists it funds than with science itself. Furthermore, she added, the bill “violates every one of the basic principles that underlie the original COMPETES act.”

HR 1806 ‘authorizes’ funding for NSF. A different bill, arising from the House Appropriations Committee, actually pays out the funding, and in that sense is more important for happens on the ground. That bill, known as CJS because it funds federal commerce, justice, science, and related agencies, does not include the granular direction of 1806, although it does pick some winners among the sciences:

The Committee recommends $5,983,645,000 for Research and Related Activities, which is an increase of $50,000,000 above fiscal year 2015 and $202,655,000 below the request. The Committee directs 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.

HR1806 calls for spending $6,186,300,000 on research and related activities.

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