September-October 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 7

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From the Executive Officer

Science Has Returned to the
Nation’s Capital, But …

sally hillsman
Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive
Officer

The "Science is back!" refrain reverberates everywhere within science policymaking circles in Washington, DC, even nine months into the Obama Administration’s "science friendly" term. The refrain is audible everywhere even when not uttered out loud, reflecting the enormity of the shift toward supporting science in the nation’s capital. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) is part of this shift, providing significant boosts this summer to basic research funding through programs highly relevant to sociology (e.g., National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF)).

That the echoes of "science is back!" persist is testament to the seriousness of the threat felt by the science community in recent years. But the threats have not all disappeared from a city often characterized by "political profits at any cost." In passing the appropriations bill on July 24th that provides NIH with more than $31 billion in 2010 ($942 million more than in 2009), the House of Representatives accepted an amendment by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) to rescind or prohibit NIH from spending money on three already funded, peer-reviewed grants that focus on HIV/AIDS prevention among vulnerable populations. Issa explained that "[it] simply prohibits what is clearly becoming an endless stream of repeating . . . studies of HIV…. [W]e have studied HIV contraction from dangerous behavior, particularly drug and alcohol, over 200 times. We’ve studied HIV at [NIH] over 1,400 times. We’ve studied just about everything one could imagine." Not a single House member rose to defend these grants or to challenge Issa’s de facto rejection of the NIH scientific peer review process that has stood the test of time in advancing science, (For more on federally funded research being scrutinized at the state lefel, see "Lessons Learned" on page 5.)

"Small" Price to Pay?

These rescinded grants total $5 million and were funded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Institution on Drug Abuse (NIDA). An Appropriations Committee staff member indicated that the Chair viewed a handful of rescinded grants as a small price to pay in the scheme of NIH’s $30-billion budget to avoid a battle, even though the Chair did not directly support the amendment. There may be political merit in "not letting perfect be the enemy of the good," but for the science community, this logic chips away the non-political and non-partisan process of funding science and risks its credibility. Footnotes readers will recall similar assaults on NIH review process reported in 2005 and 2003.

NIH’s status as the world’s premiere health research enterprise is not impervious to repeated political or ideological attacks that can invade the voting process for future science appropriations. This could include the Senate, where 2010 NIH appropriations must be approved. As of this writing in early September, it isn’t known whether a parallel Issa amendment will surface prohibiting these particular grants or perhaps a whole new set of grants. The Senate is also where pressure can be exerted to restore funding to these grants.

The social science advocacy community is ready to pounce on Issa-like amendments and to educate members of both the House and Senate, especially members of the House-Senate conference committee (where differences between House and Senate bills are ironed out), to stem the legislative erosion of scientific review. While the grants rescinded in the House are not to sociologists, scientists across the disciplinary spectrum are united in defending the credibility of scientific review as the tested method of advancing science on behalf of public well being. The broad science community (e.g., represented by the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research, Research!America) has taken a stand, reflecting its understanding that an attack on any funded peer-approved research is an attack on all competitively funded science and will eventually erode public trust.

In addition to our collaboration with these efforts and our work through the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), whose Executive Committee I chair, ASA is also using a recent public statement we issued to reject "any action by Congress that would restrict the ability of the NIH to fund high-quality, scientifically reviewed studies that address NIH research priorities." (See www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/ASA_2009_Support_Statement_NIH_Grants.pdf.) ASA also is a founding member of the Coalition to Protect Research (see www.cossa.org/CPR/cpr.shtml), a group of more than 60 foundations, scientific and professional associations and focused on protecting scientific review from politicized or ideological attack. CPR is actively monitoring this latest attack and working to educate members of Congress about peer review.

Testing Job-Creation Impact

After NIH announced more than 6,000 new grants funded by the ARRA, Fox News did a story on August 25 in which the news anchor attempted to trivialize some of the grants and question their job-creating potential. Columbia University developmental psychologist and national columnist Sari Locker was ready. She did a superb job explaining the value of the sex-related health research on the show, although she missed a chance to explain the job-creation impact of the NIH decisions. NIH reached into the highly-rated proposals unfunded from last year because of resource limitations. Warranting support on scientific grounds, these proposals received immediate funding through ARRA, meeting this new job-creating and job-sustaining mission.

Federal research agencies are continuing scientific innovation through high-quality research while seeking appropriate strategies to mesh their basic research mission (which doesn’t fit neatly into "economic stimulus" objectives) with the nation’s pressing employment needs. The administration is exploring creative ways to use non-identifiable administrative grant records to generate data on whether ARRA-funded NIH and NSF grants are generating jobs and, if so, to what extent. NSF also has job reporting requirements for its grants. These efforts, the public availability of the NIH list of ARRA grants by state (see report.nih.gov/recovery/arragrants.cfm), and the "Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tool" (providing data and analyses of NIH research activities) will provide public transparency to help support the ARRA boost to research funding.

There may be political merit in "not letting perfect be the enemy of the good," but for the science community, this logic chips away the non-political and non-partisan process of funding science and risks its credibility. logo

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.

 

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