Social Science-Unfriendly Bill Advances in DC

Legislation that would squeeze out social science and geoscience spending from their traditional share of the National Science Foundation budget will be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

The Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2016, colloquially known as CJS, would spend $51 billion for, as the name suggests, a variety of federal agencies. This includes $7.3 billion for NSF (and $1.1 billion for the Bureau of the Census). The bill has already passed the full House of Representatives last week, and the CJS subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill, without debate, today. The Republican-written bill likely will pass the full committee and then the Republican-run Senate, but President Obama has said he would veto CJS in its present form.

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.

Unlike another bill which ‘authorizes’ funding for the NSF and which specifically reduces the NSF’s social and behavioral science spending by 45 percent from the current year, CJS doesn’t call for cutting any social and geo science spending or for detailing exactly how much can be spent in any specific discipline area. Instead, it instructs that research funding favor the STEM fields – [physical] science, technology, engineering and math.

An analysis from the Consortium of Social Science Associations details the effect on social science, starting with the actual language in a report that accompanies the House version of the bill:

The [Appropriations] Committee directs NSF to ensure that Mathematical and Physical Sciences; Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering; Engineering; and Biological Sciences comprise no less than 70 percent of the funding within Research and Related Activities.

As the consortium analysis explains, “So while funding levels are not specified for each directorate, this language means that funding for the above directorates would be prioritized above the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE) and the Geosciences Directorate (GEO), thereby politicizing the use of NSF grant funding. Further, when one accounts for all of the various funding directives provided in the report, the remaining 30 percent of funding could actually translate into substantial cuts to SBE and GEO in FY 2016. The exact impact cannot be determined at this point.”

It’s not surprising that many science and scholarly groups oppose CJS. As one example, Gerald R. Fink, the chair of the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote to the House earlier this month, noting AAAS’ long-standing opposition to seeing politicians and not scientists parse research funding. “NSF is unique among federal agencies,” he wrote, “in that it supports a balanced portfolio of basic research in all disciplines, using the scientific peer review system as the foundation for awarding research grants based on merit …To ensure our national competiveness, we need to maintain a strong foundation of fundamental research across all scientific disciplines.”

“The more important objection,” argues George Washington University political scientists and Monkey Cage blogger John Sides, “centers on the value of social science research. This is the key argument for social scientists to make — and I tried to make it regarding my own NSF grant from three years ago — lest they be accused of simply advocating for goodies for themselves.”

Meanwhile, that authorization bill (authorization OKs spending money, while appropriations actually provides the money to spend) has passed the full House and awaits its introduction to the Senate. The bill, known as the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, covers much less territory than CJS, focusing mostly on the federal agencies that support research. For more on that bill, click here.

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