And So Power Passes: Whats Next for Federal Role in Social Science?

OSTP vacancy
The current state of the Office of Science and Technology Policy page on the White House website.

In March 1961 Commentary published a piece, “Writing American Fiction,” by Philip Roth in which the author surveyed the state of the American novel at the time. Roth concluded that “the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality…The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”

Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, has joined George Orwell’s 1984, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, as go to reads in the early days of the new American president. In his novel, Roth imagines a scenario where one of the 1930s’ promulgators of “America First,” Charles Lindbergh, is elected president. For Roth’s 2017 view of his novel as it applies to the new chief executive. (See: the article in The New Yorker..

As I write this, we are 10 days into the new administration. In one sense, the dialogue has been elevated: from arguing over the size of the new chief executive’s hands and other body parts to disputes over the magnitude of the inauguration crowd and the amount of voting fraud. He and his aides have also continued their war against the press, with one suggesting it should “keep its mouth shut.” Executive orders have been signed without concern for their legality and the new president’s appointments have not garnered confidence in their abilities to run departments or in their policy knowledge. For the moment, the checks on the new administration do not seem overly effective. The Republican-controlled Congress appears to have acquiesced to “government by tweet,” and the press has spent much time navel-gazing as to how to react to the administration’s assault on its role and Senior Adviser Kellyanne Conway’s pronouncement about “alternative facts.” The Democrats, despite some noise at the confirmation hearings, seem also to be contemplating how to relate to what Roth has called “this berserk reality.” The courts are beginning to step in, but their efficacy remains unclear.

The opposition so far has come in the streets. The massive women’s marches on January 21 indicate there is what Time magazine and other have dubbed “the resistance,” as if we were talking about the French Maquis. Yet sustainability questions arise as well as the ability to alter things in the electoral process, at least at the national level in two years given the gerrymandering of House districts, the arithmetic of the 2018 Senate races (only eight Republicans to target, while holding on to 23 Democratic seats and two independents, who caucus with the Dems), and the likely renewed efforts to suppress voting. Perhaps, the most effective activity will have to come at the state and local level where the Democrats have been battered during the Obama years.

In the meantime, the new administration expects to impact the FY 2017 budget, even though the fiscal year began on October 1, 2016 and the Continuing Resolution that funds agencies at their FY 2016 levels, with some exceptions (e.g. the Census Bureau), runs through the end of April. The new president has chosen South Carolina Republican Mike Mulvaney to head the Office of Management and Budget. He has voted to shut down the government over federal funding for Planned Parenthood and is a member of the Tea Party and Freedom Caucuses that have opposed most domestic spending.

In addition, the Heritage Foundation has published its Blueprint for Balance with recommendations that the administration’s budget makers are supposedly consulting. With regard to science, the Heritage budget says nothing about NIH or NSF. It recommends defunding research in the departments that support climate change research and would reduce funding for many of the science programs in the Department of Energy including physics, advanced scientific computing, and biological and environmental studies. It also calls for the elimination of ARPA-E, the Department’s equivalent of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), shepherded through Congress by former Tennessee Democrat and House Science Committee chairman Bart Gordon.

The new administration has also professed a desire to spend perhaps a trillion dollars on rebuilding America’s infrastructure. Disregarding the Congressional Republicans’ opposition to large federal spending on anything but defense and its abhorrence of deficits, the president sees this program as essential to his promise of increasing American jobs and improving the economy. Perhaps, like Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System project, the new chief executive can convince his party that this is a national defense imperative. The scientific community wonders whether it will get included in this initiative. President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package to restart the economy after the Great Recession included large increases for basic research.

With respect to leadership at the science agencies, it appears for the time being France Cordova at NSF and Francis Collins at NIH will remain in their jobs. There has been consternation about the future of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), created by Congress in 1976 and championed by the late California congressman and House Science Committee chair George Brown, and the role of the president’s science adviser.

Presidents have varied on how soon they selected an OSTP director and science adviser. President Obama, who gained credit for his keen interest and promotion of science, including a heralded speech to the National Academies and science fairs at the White House, announced John Holdren’s appointment as science adviser and OSTP head as part of a mid-December 2008 rollout of his “science team” that included NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenko and Harold Varmus and Eric Lander as co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. George W. Bush announced John Marburger’s appointment in June and he finally took office in September following Senate confirmation. The recent median for this appointment seems to be late spring, so the new group has some time.

However, for an administration whose leader dismisses climate change as a Chinese hoax, one wonders about the choices to come. One key player, Texas House Republican John Culberson, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds NSF, NASA, and NIST, told Science magazine in December that he believes OSTP should be downsized and questioned whether a PCAST was necessary.

One part of OSTP that will likely see its demise is the Behavioral Science unit led by Maya Shankar. Established to help implement the use of behavior-changing policies promulgated in Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge as well as from the results of the decision making studies of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (now celebrated in Michael Lewis’ new book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds), the office stimulated small triumphs across the government (see his New Yorkerarticle). Although first implemented in David Cameron’s conservative government in Great Britain, the idea of a behavioral sciences unit in the new White House’s science office (if there is one) seems remote.

Another source of concern for the science community, especially for the social and behavioral sciences and the geological sciences is the continued leadership of the House Science Committee by Texas Republican Lamar Smith. Apparently trying to ingratiate himself with the new administration, Smith gave a House floor speech bolstering the president’s attacks on the press and suggesting the American people should trust the information from the president rather than the media, now branded “the opposition” by a senior presidential adviser. So despite the enactment of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act in the last hours of the 114th Congress, a bipartisan effort led by Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner and Michigan Democrat Senator Gary Peters, which omitted many of the onerous provisions of the House’s America Competes Reauthorization Act, there is still danger lurking.

In addition, apprehension over the fate of the statistical agencies’ activities and budgets remains. Many House Republicans have opposed the American Community Survey, the replacement for the long-form Census questions and the source of data for many programs useful to state and local governments and businesses. While some would like to abolish the ACS altogether, the default position is to make the survey voluntary making the validity of the data suspect while increasing the cost of collecting it. Furthermore, attacks on certain religious and ethnic groups will make conducting the 2020 Census more difficult and costly, assuming the Bureau is given the funding it needs, not a certainty.

Finally, for an administration that has questions polls and data and promulgates “alternative facts,” can we expect them not to try and interfere with reports from the statistical agencies? Previous administrations have tried and the outcry pretty much made them back off, but will this happen from a presidency that seems to ignore reality? As I have said before: Attention must be paid!

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Howard J. Silver

Howard J. Silver served as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) in Washington, DC, from 1988 to 2013. He has testified before Congress, spoken on federal funding of science at many professional meetings, and written extensively on executive-legislative relations, the federal budget process, and science policy as it affects the social and behavioral sciences.

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