Washington and Social Science: News Bulletin

Trump Administration Proposes Cuts to Science Agencies

On March 16, the Trump Administration released its “skinny budget” for fiscal year 2018, a broad overview of spending priorities that is not as detailed as typical annual budget submissions. However, the scientific community was alarmed to see that the Administration is proposing a 20 percent cut in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Just last year, the House and Senate included increases of $1.25 billion and $2 billion, respectively, in their version of spending bills for the NIH, and also approved a significant increase for the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. The president’s budget now changes the dialogue from how much to increase funding for the NIH to how well we can prevent these cuts. The proposal has been widely criticized by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Social Science news bulletinWhile the skinny budget was largely silent on funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the nation’s chief basic science agency was not spared the chopping block. The Trump Administration recently sent House and Senate appropriators an FY17 supplemental funding request to boost defense and border security in part by cutting $18 billion from domestic programs. Among the proposed cuts—which would be absorbed over the last five months of FY17—are $350 million from the NSF’s research and related activities account. The supplemental also proposes an additional $1.2 billion in cuts to the NIH.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have indicated that these cuts will not be considered in the final FY17 budget package. Nevertheless, the fact that cuts have been proposed for two agencies – NSF and NIH – that have heretofore been seen as sacrosanct should be viewed with concern by the scientific and higher education communities.

House Science Subcommittee on Research Hearing Highlights Benefits of Interdisciplinary Research

On March 21, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a hearing entitled “National Science Foundation Part II: Future Opportunities and Challenges for Science.” The science community anticipated that this hearing might serve as a forum for full committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s (Republican of Texas) desire to single out specific social science grants for scrutiny and reallocate funds from the NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Sciences and Geosciences directorates to the other research directorates.

The stellar panel testifying at the hearing included Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, acting NSF chief operating officer; Dr. Maria Zuber, chair of the National Science Board; Dr. Jeffrey Spies, co-founder and chief technology officer of the Center for Open Science at the University of Virginia; and Dr. Keith Yamamoto, vice chancellor for science policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Francisco.

Nearly every panelist testified to the importance of investing in research across all disciplines of science, including social and behavioral science. In his opening statement, Subcommittee Ranking Member Dan Lipinski stated:

If SBE funding is gutted, progress in the social sciences will slow and its community of experts will shrink along with its capacity to add value to other research initiatives. As a result, in the long term, America’s capabilities in cybersecurity, medicine, military planning, disaster preparedness and aid, and countless other fields will suffer.

While Chairman Smith was not able to attend in person, his written statement focused on one particular social science grant “linking political ideology to mental illness”:

The researchers concluded that conservatives were much more likely to manifest a personality pattern typified by aggressiveness and interpersonal hostility than liberals. However, this conclusion was based on a mathematical error that even a grade school student should have been able to spot. In fact, the research data actually indicated the opposite – that liberals, not conservatives, were disposed to these behaviors. It was three full years after their mathematical error was brought to the researchers’ attention until they acknowledged their mistake and retracted their findings.

ACA Repeal: House Vote Pulled… But May Come Back in Late April

After several House Committees approved their portions of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), a comprehensive proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), House leadership on March 24 pulled the AHCA from the floor. Because there were no Democrats supporting the bill, House majority leadership had to ensure that most Republicans would vote for the bill. From the right, the conservative House Freedom Caucus opposed the bill – calling it “Obamacare lite.” From the center, a small group of moderate Republicans also opposed the bill, but for different reasons, primarily because it would remove insurance coverage for 24 million Americans.

House majority leadership is trying to take another crack at this, but will soon adjourn for a two-week Easter/Passover recess, returning on the week of April 24. Stay tuned!

Looking at the events that transpired over the past few weeks, the failure of the majority in the House to secure enough votes for passage of the AHCA illustrates the delicate nature of coalition-building in Congress. Simply having a 44-seat majority in the House is not enough to ensure passage of an issue as complex as health care reform. Moving the bill to the “right” to satisfy the requirements of the Freedom Caucus might have guaranteed House passage, but would alienate Republicans in the Senate. For political science junkies, this has been an interesting intersection of math and political science that will be studied and written about by researchers for years to come!

Budget and Appropriations Update-Still No Endgame

After the House on March 8 cleared the final House-Senate agreement on the fiscal year 2017 Defense Appropriations Act, little progress has been made on moving that bill in the Senate, or any of the other remaining spending bills needed to keep the federal government funded. We are now half-way through the fiscal year, and the continuing resolution that is funding agencies at existing levels expires on April 28. This means that Congress must either approve the remaining FY17 appropriations bills by then, or pass another continuing resolution to prevent a government shutdown.

One possible approach to resolving the budget stalemate is for the Senate to attach any bills negotiated by April 28 to the House-approved Defense bill, and send it back over to the House, forcing them to choose between a large spending bill or shutting the government down. As Otto von Bismarck once said, “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”

House Approves “HONEST Act”

On March 29, the House approved a controversial science bill known as “the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act (HONEST Act, H.R.1430).” According to a Science Committee press release, the bill “requires that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations be based upon science that is publicly available.” In the release, Chairman Smith stated that “the days of ‘trust me’ science are over. Allowing EPA’s data to be independently reviewed promotes sound science that will restore confidence in the EPA decision-making process.”

While this legislation’s purported goals seem laudable (who’s against transparency?), critics like the Union of Concerned Scientists expressed concerns that the bill is unnecessary and will be costly to implement.

In 2015, a similar bill, the Secret Science Reform Act (SSRA), was introduced in the Science Committee. The Congressional Budget Office estimated an annual cost of $250 million annually to implement SSRA. It would increase the cost per study for the EPA by $10,000-$30,000, and would apply to about 50,000 studies the agency relies on annually for risk assessments, regulation, guidance, standards, and other regular agency activities.

In the News…

Chair of House Science Committee Says the Journal ‘Science’ Is Not Objective: http://www.snopes.com/2017/03/29/smith-journal-science-not-objective/

NPR: Social Science Research Explores Psychological Effects Of Rituals:


NPR: How Flawed Science Is Undermining Good Medicine


Upcoming Hearings and Briefings

NOTE: The House and Senate will be in recess for most of the remainder of April, returning to session during the week of April 24.

“Why Social Science? Because Understanding Markets Can Save Lives” sponsored by the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) and SAGE Publishing, April 28, 3-4:30 PM (reception to follow), 2167 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515. RSVP https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfl4YlGLOoLOtXocd6ZsgjQMsUGIfoRmFiDuCJAezGrMYxLGQ/viewform?c=0&w=1.

Late Night Quotable

Jimmy Fallon: “[Trump] said that if this healthcare bill didn’t pass, that he’d just leave Obamacare in place. Kind of a weird threat. It’s like saying, ‘If you kids don’t stop fighting back there, I’m going to drive this car straight to Disney World!'”

Seth Myers: “Passengers on foreign airlines traveling to the U.S. from 10 airports in Muslim-majority countries have been barred from carrying electronic devices larger than a cellphone. Seems extreme, but it’s worth it if it stops even one tourist from taking pictures with an iPad.”

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Mark Vieth

Mark Vieth is a senior vice president of the Washington government relations firm CRD Associates. Since he joined CRD in 2002, he has specialized in bringing diverse associations, foundations, institutions of higher education and other stakeholders together to advocate for common objectives. Before that, Vieth was a staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives for 14 years, including serving as chief of staff for then-Congressman Robert A. Borski of Pennsylvania.

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