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The Executive Officer’s Column

A Cornucopia of Post-Election Positives, Potentials, and Possible Pitfalls

Many of you may be suffering from 2002 post-election and post-Thanksgiving lethargy, so it is a good time to review the broader spectrum of recent developments in federal science policy that confront the social sciences in this new political climate. While this is the traditional time of year to be thankful for bountiful harvests, this year we “feast” on an unusual mix of “P”s (i.e., Positives, Potentials, and Possible Pitfalls).

Events of the last year in Washington politics have produced a balance of power that will impact legislation, policymaking, and judicial appointments. There are many important science policy matters deserving our attention in the months to come, and ASA is working closely with social science coalitions both to monitor and influence outcomes.

First, the Possible Pitfalls . . .

The Bush Administration has aroused concern within the health research community by giving the impression that scientific decision-making at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) may be overly guided by ideology and that scientific information that does not fit the Administration’s political agenda is being suppressed. In October, House democrats wrote to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson expressing concern that “Scientific information that does not serve the Administration’s ideological agenda is being removed from HHS web sites.” Specifically cited is the removal of material from National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) websites about research findings indicating that abortions do not increase breast cancer risk, and the elimination from CDC’s website of information on condom effectiveness and educational programs that reduce risky adolescent health behavior.

The science policy community—including ASA, the American Educational Research Association, and a diverse group of a dozen library and information science organizations—has also expressed concern about long-term access to information recently removed from the U.S. Department of Education website and has asked Secretary Rod Paige how the information’s accessibility will be maintained. Reports, research data, and digests that have been publicly available in some form regardless of which political party occupied the White House are in jeopardy because of an internal memo stating that the government seeks to remove outdated information or information deemed to “not reflect the priorities, philosophies, or goals of the present administration.” While the ongoing transition is the first shift of presidencies since the Web became a major medium for disseminating government information, this process deserves close scrutiny by the scientific community.

Scientists are also concerned about an apparent selective appointment of federal science advisory committee members. An October 24 Science magazine editorial characterized the appointments as “unwise … moves that undermine the process by which scientists provide advice to the U.S. government,” and that this “stacking advisory committees with individuals whose qualifications are ideological rather than scientific will fundamentally undermine the integrity of scientific decision-making at our leading public health agencies.” Senate Democrats wrote to Secretary Thompson, expressing their “deep concern” about the alleged motives behind “a wholesale replacement of experts on key scientific advisory committees,” including the National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee (NHRPAC). The fears were not unfounded, as, after NHRPAC’s charter was allowed to expire, the Administration revised the panel’s charter in anticipation of its revival to include human embryos as “human subjects” worthy of protection in research, which is not within the current scope of the Common Rule. Such developments raise concern that several key scientific posts could become politicized. The HHS Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) director’s post is vacant with the departure of Greg Koski and the research community is legitimately concerned about his replacement.

Other moves could also undermine scientific activity in the federal government. Under the provisions of Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-76, federal agencies are moving toward migrating some 800,000-plus government positions to the private sector. By means of the FAIR (Federal Activities Inventory Reform) Act, agency heads must identify positions that are not essentially governmental in nature, not a matter of scientific concern unless the mechanism compromises the independence and integrity of federal statistics and research. Such is potentially the case with the Department of Justice’s announcement that a large percentage of the statisticians and researchers at the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Institute of Justice will be privatized. The social science research community is very focused on this, as outsourcing the nation’s crime statistics and research data collection, analysis, and reporting could become a prime target for politicization, potentially undermining these science agencies’ independence and credibility.

Now for the Positives and Potentials . . .

As reported in the November 2002 Footnotes (Public Affairs Update), ASA and other social science organization representatives had a very positive meeting with NIH director, Elias Zerhouni that set a highly positive tone for future relations. Zerhouni seems genuinely appreciative of both the value of social scientific research and training and the concerns of the social science health research community.

The National Academies have published reports directly tapping social scientists’ expertise in understanding and preventing terrorism and establishing associated research priorities. The Academies’ latest such work, the 80-page Terrorism: Perspectives from the Behavioral and Social Sciences, was written by the Panel on Behavioral, Social, and Institutional Issues, Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, chaired by sociologist Neil J. Smelser.

The President’s science advisor, physicist John Marburger, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), also was strongly supportive of the role of the social sciences in federal science efforts in his November address to the annual meeting of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), of which ASA is a member. Acknowledging that Washington is full of sociologists, anthropologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, and historians, Marburger said government “can take better advantage of the social sciences, and that the challenges of our times can be engaged more effectively if we use the knowledge and the techniques developed in [these] fields.” He stated that the “social sciences are participating in a broad transformation affecting all of science that is changing the tools, the methods, and the sociology of every field.” (See this issue’s Public Affairs Update on page 3 for more.)

The newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security includes an Undersecretary for Research and Development who will serve as coordinator of homeland security-related R&D within a Homeland Security Institute. The intent is to mobilize the nation’s scientific and technical resources for a long-term effort to combat terrorism. This new institute will provide technical support to the homeland security director and identify vulnerabilities and evaluate the effectiveness of anti-terrorism efforts.

The Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 creates a new Institute of Education Sciences, which holds the promise of providing research, evaluation, statistical, and technical assistance to guide ambitious education reforms and will for the first time house all of these functions under one roof. It is designed to provide the field with the type of rigorous evidence necessary for the foundation of new teaching practices and curriculum. Many in the social science policy community are optimistic about this.

Last month, both the House and Senate passed the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act, providing a standardized set of confidentiality protections and extending them to all individually identifiable data collected for statistical purposes under a pledge of confidentiality. It permits the sharing of business data by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Bureau of the Census. All presidents dating back to Jimmy Carter have sought the provisions in this Act.

Finally, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is now congressionally re-authorized and its budget authorized to double over the next five years, beginning in fiscal year 2003. Social science organizations hope that appropriations will follow at this level of funding to support the nation’s primary basic science agency. This is especially important because NSF has developed a new priority area (Human and Social Dynamics) that promises to significantly enhance support for the social and behavioral sciences for a five-year period beginning in 2004. More on this later.

The above is but a sampling of important recent developments in Washington, and Footnotes will bring you more details about these and other science-affecting policies of Congress and the new Administration in future issues. Happy holidays!

Sally T. Hillsman