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NSF Director Is Receptive to Warnings About the Context of Federal Science Support

by Lee Herring, Public Affairs Office

“This is why I like to meet and talk with you social scientists,” said National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Rita Colwell in an appreciative response to Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate Advisory Committee Chair Irwin Feller. Feller had just urged Colwell at SBE’s early-November meeting to take an urgent message to the President’s National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC) Committee on Science, which Colwell co-chairs, that the nation’s primary research infrastructure (i.e., publicly funded research universities) is dangerously threatened by the unprecedented decline in state higher education budgets.

The Whole Picture

Colwell appeared genuinely appreciative of the stark clarity of the social scientists’ perspective on the fragility of the nation’s research enterprise and the erosion of the long-term partnership between public universities and the federal government in supporting the nation’s enviable basic research and higher education enterprises. Feller was chairing the SBE Committee when he addressed Colwell, who also delivered prepared remarks to the group.

Speaking on behalf of the Committee, comprised of economists, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, and geographers, Feller urged Colwell to keep in mind the importance of federal research agencies’ support of “social science infrastructure” (e.g., databases, national surveys), emphasizing that although it is less visible than research infrastructure of physical sciences, it is no less essential to the integrity and productivity of the social sciences.

Business Model of Partnership

Feller made his remarks following discussion of the impact of increased regulatory pressures on research (e.g., subject protection, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), indirect cost constraints, and the Bush Administration’s “Business Model of Research” that is part of an effort to modernize the management and funding of the nation’s federally supported basic science program. NSTC has undertaken this effort in response to a “changing research environment.” Its analysis of the business relationship between research universities and the federal research agencies is presented in the NSTC Subcommittee on Research Business Models request for information in the August 6, 2003, Federal Register. Social scientists on the SBE advisory group are concerned that policymakers on the NSTC and in the federal research agencies themselves may not have fully considered that with some 42 of 50 states having significantly decreased their support for higher education in recent years—an important component of that “changed environment”—the nation’s science infrastructure is therefore being slowly and quietly undermined to a precarious status.

The resulting pressure on public institution researchers is being reflected in the rapidly escalating numbers of research proposals being received by agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and NSF, as researchers at public schools attempt to fill serious gaps created by ever-downward-spiraling state budget support. Federal research agency leadership may not be fully cognizant of the significant across-the-government increases in numbers of grant applications and may not have thought deeply about the implications of its origins. Colwell appreciated the SBE committee’s compelling description of the urgency of the matter and also urged the scientific community to communicate formally with NSTC, a cabinet-level White House Council that sets goals for science and technology across the government. See a status report, public comments, and summary of public regional workshops on Research Business Models at rbm.nih.gov/.