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New Administration Stokes Old Fears for Social Scientists Academic Funding
Norman Ornstein

New Administration Stokes Old Fears for Social Scientists

January 26, 2017 1139

Norm Ornstein

Norman Ornstein

While the new president of the United States has tweeted a lot about just about everything, one area Donald Trump has not yet visited is science policy. But given the historic antipathy that a few members of the Republican Party have had for social and behavioral science, researchers are just a bit anxious about what those presidential fingers may type – and with reason, according to one observer.

Discussing the Republican-controlled Congress and Republican president, Norman Ornstein predicted “they’re going to go after social science research and probably try to cut funding for [the National Science Foundation] overall.”

In a webinar Thursday titled, “The Outlook for Science in the New Administration and Congress,” Ornstein, a scholar from the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Rush Holt, the executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), sat down to divine what may lie ahead. The webinar, hosted by AAAS, is viewable by clicking here.

Apart from climate change and other environmental issues, which seem to be in the new administration’s crosshairs, the concerns of most of the science community comes down to money, according to Ornstein, a columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and who penned, with Tom Mann, the 2012 bestseller It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.


A Way Forward

The Consortium of Social Science Associations offers the following recommendations for how the Trump administration and the 115th Congress can work toward achieving meaningful policy changes using the insights derived from social and behavioral science research.

Social and Behavioral Science Research: Ten Recommendations for the 45th President of the United States

The executive director of COSSA, Wendy Naus, will be the guest in a free Social Science Space webinar on February 9. “Event: Social Science in the Age of Trump: What We’d Like to See” will focus specifically on social and behavioral science and include specific discussions of how the community can act to support quality science. To register, click here.


In setting out the political terrain with Holt, a physicist who spent 16 years as a Democratic congressman from New Jersey before he took over AAAS two years ago, Ornstein predicted a fairly alarming future for science at the federal level.  Saying he feared “a war on scientists within the government,” Ornstein cited a few data points, including efforts to suppress publicizing government-originated data and scientific papers, a likely ban on research on weather, and expected efforts to privatize NASA and the national laboratory system.

Not all of his data points came from the Executive Branch. He cited the long-standing efforts to quash the American Community Survey or the continued hostility of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake – “one of the senators who has been most outspoken against Trump” – to federal spending on social science, in particular on the National Opinion Surveys that have been a mainstay of political science research. Ornstein cited the recent floor speech given by the head of the House Science Committee, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who “basically urged people to turn to Donald Trump for their facts, since the facts presented by the others were fake news.” Smith for some time has been sparring with the social science community over government support of social and behavioral science.

Ornstein predicted lean times for social science research in the coming Congress, with a forecast that the legislature will roll the cuts to NSF into an omnibus bill and then “dare Democrats to shut down the government” by filibustering the legislation.

One stick he expects the GOP to use is fiscal rectitude, even while big increases in defense and infrastructure and big cuts in taxes are expected. “We’re going to get the most expansionary fiscal policy ever, actually coming a stupid time to do it with full employment at a particularly stupid time,” Ornstein predicted. “In return, to at least show on paper that you’re serious at fiscal responsibility,” he expects small and essentially symbolic attacks on things like social science grants. Ultimately, he expects to see zero-sum games played over loose change that pit, say, social science spending against some program for poverty alleviation.

Holt offered several defensive strategies for the social behavioral researchers and those who support “empirical evidence” instead of ideological assertions as policy seeds. Despite saying he found politics is “harder than physics,” the man who penned “Shifts of the Caii K line in Hei 10830 dark points” also encouraged scientists and science supporters to become politically active, either by assisting others or running for office themselves.

“This is not a time, if you’re concerned about the fate of the planet,” added Ornstein, “to retreat to the ivory tower.”


Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

View all posts by Michael Todd

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