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On February 13, President Obama sent his $3.8 trillion Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 budget to Congress. This is a crucial first step in the messy yearly appropriations process that signals the priorities of the Executive Branch. When President Obama released this budget, he said its main focus was “to do everything in our power to keep this [economic] recovery on track.” He also said that: “I’m proposing some difficult cuts that, frankly, I wouldn’t normally make if they weren’t absolutely necessary. But they are. And the truth is we’re going to have to make some tough choices in order to put this country back on a more sustainable fiscal path.” Some of the Administration’s “tough choices” and others subsequently introduced by Congress in the on-going battle over the FY 2013 budget have significant, negative implications for sociological research. ASA and its partners in the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) haven’t conceded defeat yet.
Congress is now considering the final federal government spending plan for FY 2013, a tough process especially in an election year. Elected officials, however, don’t always ignore the views and expertise of interest groups and scientific societies which represent large swathes of the American people before they make decisions. This is why the ASA sometimes makes the sociological community’s views known to Capitol Hill and federal agencies when it comes to important science policy. To a policy maker, one letter from the ASA can represent the voices of most of our 14,000 members and a letter jointly signed by a group of scientific associations reflects an even larger group of scholars, educators, and researchers. Two recent funding proposals that have aroused significant member calls on the ASA to act.
The President’s budget initially planned for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to significantly cut the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth (NLSY) budget. This budget cut would hamper social scientists ability to collect and disseminate data as soon as April 2012. The cuts would have provided insufficient funds to field additional rounds of the NLSY 1979 and NLSY 1997 cohorts, and to complete even the most rudimentary data releases.
BLS officials decided to make these draconian cuts to NLSY budget to meet the requirements of overall BLS budget reductions rather than “spread the pain” since they did not expect a large public outcry over these planned cuts. The officials were wrong.
The social science community began to put pressure on the BLS and less than a month after the President’s budget was released the Bureau announced that it would temporarily suspend budget plans to elongate the fielding schedules of the 1979 and 1997 cohorts of the NLSY. ASA and its fellow social science associations remain vigilant with plans already on the drawing board for future action should the situation require.
Last month, the ASA Executive Office learned that some members of Congress were working to make the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) voluntary. The ACS replaced the decennial census long form and has been used to collect confidential community-level data more frequently than every 10 years. Recent reports1 confirm what sociologists’ research experience would predict, namely that response rates to a voluntary ACS would drop significantly from those under a mandatory system, despite the strict confidentiality of the data provided by their status as part of the Census. To maintain the necessary response levels under a voluntary system and produce reliable estimates at the community and micro levels, which are central benefits of the ACS, the Census Bureau would have to rely on significantly more expensive data collection methods (e.g., telephone, door-to-door visits). Under the current fiscal climate in Congress, more money seems unlikely. A voluntary ACS without substantially greater resources, therefore, would have the undesirable consequence of providing an unclear understanding of U.S. populations and demographic shifts across states and localities. Because sociologists are among the major users of the ACS, the ASA sent a letter to members of Congress, stating “to preserve the value of the ACS and the benefits it has brought to the American people and their communities, the ACS should continue to be mandatory.” ASA also joined a collective letter from the social science community carrying the same message.
The ASA letter reminded congressional leaders of how important an accurate ACS is to the success of federal, state, and local policy decisions. “Congress relies on ACS data to guide the federal government’s distribution of approximately $485 billion annually in grants to states and localities. Preserving the accuracy of these data is a cost-effective investment to ensure that federal funds are meeting the needs Congress intends to address. In addition, State and municipal officials routinely use the ACS as their major (and often only) source of reliable data for planning and resource allocation. Most have no other consistent, reliable source of detailed information about the social and economic dimensions of their communities. Large and small businesses report using ACS data regularly to guide investment decisions including where to locate new facilities and offer services. Improving the ACS, not weakening it, is important for the economic well-being of American communities across the spectrum of size and rural/suburban/urban location.” Needless to say (but we did!), the ACS is also a major source of data for much sociological research.
The ASA Executive Office is positioned to work with federal agencies, congressional leaders, and coalition partners to promote the priorities and needs of sociologists. We will continue to monitor federal science policy including NLSY and ACS issues and respond accordingly. But, we also need the ASA membership and the sociological community at large to be alert and let us know about federal actions that are of potential concern. In turn, ASA will keep you informed.
But as individuals and as members of educational and research institutions, sociologists can also make their opinions known directly to federal officials. The election season heightens receptivity. It never hurts to ask candidates about their views on the role of science, and the social sciences in particular, and to provide data-rich position papers to campaign staff on topics about which social science research has important insights to contribute.
Sociologists also have an important role to play in expanding the public’s understanding of and appreciation for what the social sciences have to offer public discourse by sharing their expertise with the media. Other than a person’s first-hand experience (which we know is often a very narrow window), what members of the public know, think, and believe about what happens in society is implicated by how events are communicated through newspaper, radio, and television.
ASA Council has encouraged the Executive Office to expand its work with the national and local media in order to help members contribute to media-generated public dialog. I encourage you to become part of the new ASA member experts’ database, which is discussed in this issue of Footnotes by media expert Dan Fowler. If the ASA experts’ database isn’t for you, you can share with your colleagues, friends, and families relevant sociology news stories that are in ASA’s media coverage pages on the website (www.asanet.org) via social media or with your students in classroom discussion. The media influences public awareness and opinions about important social and policy issues, but sociologists can also influence the media with our research-based knowledge.
Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA.
She can be reached by email at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.