Omnibus US Funding Bill Smiles on Social Science

Social and behavioral science funded by the U.S. government appears to have received an early Christmas present as leaders in the House of Representatives unveiled a $1.1 trillion spending bill to keep the federal enterprise funded in 2016.

Appears, because the final deal won’t be voted on by the full House and then the Senate until later this week, and the White House is currently reviewing the spending package and its companion tax bill before promising a presidential signature of the two bills. And as with any compromise measure rushed through at the last minute, this omnibus bill has plenty of scope to fatally offend (or richly reward) a key faction or two.

But the existing language – or more specifically, lack of language – comes as a relief for partisans of science. The bill includes $120 million for the National Science Foundation above the “enacted level” budget for the current fiscal year, for a total of $7.463 billion. That’s actually a quarter-billion dollars below what the White House asked for earlier in the year, but above what appropriation and authorization bill introduced this year (and mangled in the jockeying for the omnibus bill) would have allocated. For example, the “Research and Related Activities” line item in the NSF budget – the pot of money from which research grants are funded – is up $100 million from the current year, double the increase proposed by the House (although $150 million less than the Obama administration’s request).

But at least as importantly for the social science and geoscience communities is that the omnibus doesn’t cap the money that NSF can allocate for research in those two areas; social science spending could have been halved under one proposal. “Instead, the language states that [NSF’s Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Science] should be funded at no more than the FY 2015 level,” explained Wendy Naus, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations. “I’m taking that as a major victory compared to what we were up against earlier in the year.” (COSSA is a partner of Social Science Space; a full analysis of the omnibus package prepared by the consortium appears HERE.)

The NSF funds more than half of university-based basic social and behavioral science research carried out in the United States, so the vagaries of budgeting the agency have an outsize influence on the social science terrain.

Naus also identified other portions of the bill that were bright spots for social science, especially since the future appeared grim on many fronts earlier in the year. One of the biggest wins was the loss of bill language that would have made the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey voluntary. The survey, which fills in demographic data on Americans in the years between the decennial censuses, is a prime source of data for social scientists, but it’s also been a bête noir for many conservatives. The Census Bureau itself is budgeted at $1.37 billion, again more that the legislature had planned but less than President Obama had sought.

Other wins were less victories and more averted defeats. For example, the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics saw no increase in their budgets — $36 million and $41 million respectively. “This is an OK outcome,” said Naus, “especially considering that the House bill essentially sought to zero-out funding for NIJ/BJS by taking away their direct appropriations and moving to a discretionary transfer option.”

In a similar vein, she noted that while the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality saw its budget cut by $30 million to $334 million, this was a much better outcome than the complete elimination sought in the House. “The agreement even includes an increase for investigator-initiated research grants,” she added.

“All in all, this is a good final outcome for social science funding. … The cards were really stacked against us this year,” Naus said of social and behavioral science’s travails on Capitol Hill this year. “Let the eggnog flow!”

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