Bill That Constrains Social Science Goes to Full Senate

On a 27-3 vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday pushed a bill that constrains the nation’s federal research budget for social science to the Senate as a whole. The bill has already passed the House of Representatives, but President Barack Obama has said he’d veto the bill in its current form.

The lopsided vote is less a sign of agreement and more a recognition that any serious fight will occur on the Senate floor (or in post-veto wrangling). Ultimately, though, the Republican chamber will likely pass the Republican-shepherded bill.

The social science component is actually a very small portion of the much larger Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Bill for the 2016 fiscal year. The bill, known as CJS, funds the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Justice, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and related agencies. The $51.06 billion CJS bill is $965 million higher than the amount appropriated for the current fiscal year for those agencies, but $985 million below President Obama’s budget request (and more than $3 billion below that request when various ‘scorekeeping adjustments’ are factored in).

NSF is slated to receive $7.3 billion in the legislation, but rather than allow the foundation’s experts determine how best to parcel out research grants, a report attached to the House version of the bill prioritizes spending in the physical sciences, technology, engineering and math disciplines, which has the practical effect of reducing allocations for the social and geosciences.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, offered an amendment that would have restored $2.8 billion in discretionary funding to the bill – contingent on a budget deal passing that excises the sequester – but that failed on a party-line vote. That amendment included provisions to increase NSF’s appropriation by $252.7 million “to fully fund the request for NSF’s Research and Related Activates account. Unfettered basic research selected in a merit-reviewed, competitive process generates new ideas that become new products and new companies.” The practical effect of that amendment would have been to see social and geosciences receiving allocations equivalent to their current budgets even with the collar.

The president’s Office of Management and Budget offered a seven-page explanation of why a veto is mooted; in the subsection dealing with NSF, the office writes that the appropriated amount is less than what the president requested (by $329 million). Furthermore:

Especially hard hit by this reduction would be the geosciences and social, behavioral, and economic sciences, which would be reduced by 20 percent. The Committee’s allocation of resources to specific disciplines would interfere with NSF’s ability to respond to scientific opportunity.

The chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science told those assembled that the bill represented a balance among competing demands, especially under the sequester. “Within prudent fiscal boundaries, this bill achieves a careful balance between the competing priorities of law enforcement, national security, economic development, scientific research, and space exploration,” said Richard Selby, a Republican from Alabama. “As a result, this bill represents responsible spending at a time when America is living within a constrained budget.”

CJS is one of two bills affecting NSF and social science funding in play. A bill that authorizes funding for the NSF and other research agencies, and which specifically reduces the NSF’s social and behavioral science spending by 45 percent from the current year, is awaiting introduction to the Senate. (Authorization OKs spending money, while appropriations actually provides the money to spend.) For more on that bill, known as the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, click here.

Scholarly and science-oriented organizations have condemned both CJS and COMPETES.

CJS also funds the Bureau of the Census, appropriating $1.13 billion in the coming fiscal year, or $40 million more than in the current fiscal year. The bill tells the Census to hold the costs of the 2020 Census below that of 2010, “and to maintain its focus on activities that will make such savings possible.” That’s a tall order for any agency, as Mikulski noted in a release where she argued that this amount was $372 million below what was necessary. “This cut may save millions of dollars in 2016, but will cost taxpayers billions in 2020,” the release reads. “The 2010 Census cost nearly $13 billion, and the Bureau projects that repeating the same old paper-and-pencil Census in 2020 could cost more than $17 billion; however, new technologies like internet response could save more than $5 billion in 2020. That $5 billion in savings is seriously jeopardized by the cuts in this bill, because the bureau can’t conduct a cheaper, 21st-century 2020 Census unless testing, evaluation, and implementation are completed well in advance of the decennial.”

The Senate CJS bill currently doesn’t include a provision of the House bill which makes the Census’s American Community Survey voluntary, and not mandatory. However, Oklahoma Republican John Lankford criticized the survey for being mandatory, which has been a common GOP talking point this year, and suggested he would offer an amendment blocking this when the CJS bill was on the Senate floor. Social scientists make great use of the survey’s data, which replaced the Census’s long form.

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