Social Science Gets Surprisingly Warm Reception on Hill

France Cordova
France Córdova will mark her second full year as the head of the NSF later this month.

The House Science Committee has been a dreary place for the social and behavioral sciences in recent years, with multiples attacks made on the disciplines’ federal funding and their very worth. But Tuesday, at the annual overview of the National Science Foundation’s budget request by the full committee’s panel on research and technology, a remarkably cheery pep rally was on view.

In rapid succession:

  • Dan Arvizu, the chairman of the National Science Board, in addressing the new tool set developed from big data and machine learning, forecast that not only would big data and empirical modeling transform science in the coming decade “much as calculus revolutionized physics and computers remade engineering,” it would allow researchers “to tackle heretofore elusive problems, including questions in the social, behavioral and economic sciences that are among our hardest to crack.”
  • Congressman Dan Lipinski, a Democrat from Illinois, made note of Arvizu’s statements and then added, “I don’t want a hearing to go by without me emphasizing the importance of [social, behavioral and economic sciences] … and the critical questions it can help us to address.”
  • Lipinski then asked France Córdova, the director of the NSF, how her agency was contributing to the Smart and Connected Cities initiative, in which urban areas use technology to address things like traffic congestion and fighting crime. She then made an explicit connection between the popular and tech-heavy SMART communities effort and social science: “again, this a place where social science comes into the picture. In smart and connected communities we must take all the data we are getting and ask our social scientists to evaluate where we can make better inroads.”
  • And Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, specifically asked Córdova to give examples of social and behavioral sciences making breakthroughs. That set up the director to answer at length about the value and impact of SBE. “The social and behavioral sciences are part of every cross-disciplinary initiative that we have, and that alone shows their importance to everything we do. Technological change comes along with a lot of questions about how to best utilize that technology and incorporate it.” She then cited the importance SBE to the Department of Defense, especially in its intelligence gathering needs, and to cybersecurity.

The primary purpose for Córdova’s visit was to officially ask for Congress to increase NSF’s budget by 1.3 percent, an additional $100 million to $7.56 billion, in the coming fiscal year. On top of that, she asked for an additional $400 million – pushing the request to just shy of $8 billion. That $400 million, however, is classified as “mandatory research funding,” and Tuesday’s hearing was focused solely on the discretionary budget, even as Cordova insisted her agency saw the request as “an ensemble.”

Despite some increases in recent years, she explained that since 2010 the NSF has actually seen a slight decline in research funding in “constant dollars,” which has meant that the approval rate of grant requests have been falling for years. At the turn of the millennium, she said, 30 percent of grants were funded, and that is now 20 percent. She said $4 billion worth of important research is “left on the cutting room floor.”

The largest part of that discretionary budget for FY2017 is $6.1 billion for research grants and related activities, which is actually 0.8 percent higher than in 2016. Of that amount $272 million is scheduled for the Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, the smallest of the six discipline-based directorates that make research grants at NSF. (A seventh directorate addresses education and human resources.) While small relative to other disciplines, SBE funding budget request supports two-thirds of academic basic research funded by the U.S. government.

Republicans on the committee, and in particular Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the full Science Committee, have tried to reduce funding for SBE in various ways, including by having Congress set directorate-level funding – and then lowering the allocation to disciplines like SBE and geosciences. Lipinski on Tuesday channeled John Culberson, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee and which last week received the NSF budget request. At that hearing, Culberson rejected any effort by Congress to tinker at the directorate level. Culberson’s stance is actually an about-face from his vote last year to support a Smith-penned bill capping SBE funding at less than what the NSF sought. A bipartisan Dear Colleague letter, drafted by Republican Richard Hanna of New York and Democrat David Price of North Carolina has been circulating asking that the Appropriations process not intrude at the directorate level. “We urge,” they wrote, “that the NSF appropriation follow current practice—by appropriating funds only to the Research & Related Activities account—thereby leaving directorate funding decisions to experts at NSF with technical input from the scientific community, the National Academies, National Science Board, and other bodies.”

Culberson was equally direct last week in rejecting that extra $400 million in grant funding, lumping it in as “speculative sources of funding for the future that are just simply not going to happen.” To be clear, the request from the NSF – part of the total federal budget request from the Obama administration – is just that, a request. According to the U.S. Constitution, all spending bills originate in the House of Representatives.  Smith’s committee authorizes funding for the NSF, while Culberson’s actually appropriates money for it.

The hearing Tuesday was also meant to examine how well the NSF has been meeting accountability and transparency policies, an area Smith has repeatedly addressed in his remarks and legislation. However, the hearing was cut short because of votes the representative had to make outside of the subcommittee. Any questions they might have had on those issues will be submitted in writing in the next two weeks.

Congressional input has had some effect on National Science Foundation behavior. The agency in late 2014 changed how it handles the public-facing portions of its funded grants, with new guidelines for more reader-friendly abstracts and titles and telling principal investigators of submitted research projects that if their proposal is funded they better be able to explain the project in English. A new study by an NSF working group led by James Hamos —a senior adviser to Córdova— has determined that the  agency is in fact more active in changing the titles of research proposals to make them “understandable by the public.” These changes likely will have a collateral benefit of shrinking the target on the back of some grants with “silly” names (or foreign-sounding focus) but serious intent, since many sober bits of research have been criticized by legislators who seem not to have read past the project’s title or abstract.

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