December 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 9

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Science in the New Congress

sally hillsman
Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

Things have certainly changed in Washington over the past two years.

In the December 2008 edition of Footnotes I wrote, "There is a sense within the Washington beltway that the antagonism sometimes experienced by scientists and their findings from the current administration [Bush] will dissipate under Obama." To some extent this has occurred, demonstrated by the Obama administration’s strong support for science—from proposing large increases in funding to hosting a White House science fair. This early wave of support instilled a sense of relative comfort among the Washington science community.

This wave may have crashed on November 2. The science community is now beginning to gauge the importance of the mid-term election results that resulted in 90+ new Republican members of the House of Representatives and six new Republican members of the Senate. These increases usher in Republican control in the House of Representatives and greater power in the Senate when the 112th Congress begins in January during an atmosphere of Republican emphases on budget cuts and tough oversight hearings (see the Election article in this issue).

What does this mean for science funding and for the social sciences? While President Obama will likely continue to promote science, concerns have been raised about the willingness of the new Congress to follow his lead—especially with a budget crisis in full swing. Many in the new Congress were elected based on promises to resolve the budget crisis without raising tax revenue. While they look to cuts in the federal government’s non-defense discretionary spending, this may prove to be a difficult task because non-defense discretionary spending represents approximately 17 percent of the federal budget.

How does this translate to specific science programs? Some members have already begun proposing ideas about which programs should be cut, with likely targets identified as early as 2009. For instance, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) (soon-to-be the Speaker of the House) along with Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) (soon-to-be Majority Leader) publicly stated that they would cut science funding, specifically the National Science Foundation (NSF), to help cut the federal deficit.

The National Science Foundation intends to spend $198 million next year [2010] on Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and Social and Economic Science (SES). Unlike NSF’s other hard science programs (such as engineering and biological sciences) these soft science programs are often more controversial and less directly related to NSF’s core mission. ....Reducing spending for BCS and SES programs by 50% would save taxpayers $99 million next year [2010] and $495 million over five years.

Another idea circulating in Washington is returning funding for science programs to FY2008 levels. This would reduce science spending significantly—12 percent for NSF and 5 percent for National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In addition to budgetary issues, the new Congressional leadership is already announcing enhanced oversight hearings, many focusing on federally-supported research grants. Some NSF grants have already been identified, by name alone, as "fleece," including the "Study of the Archives of Andean Knotted-String Records: The Khipu Database Project" and "The Cultural Politics of Fair Trade Coffee: Commodifying Social Justice, and Social Relationships and Reproductive Strategies of Phayre’s Leaf Monkeys." If these hearings were to become media darlings, and identified as illustrations federal spending waste, this could negatively impact science funding.

Representative Cantor already has a website that urges the public to make its own budgetary cuts ( This site could give Congress the necessary cover to cut programs important to the social sciences.

Current Status

Congress was unable to approve new spending levels before the 2011 budget year began on October 1, so the federal government is currently operating on 2010 spending levels under a Continuing Resolution (CR). Typically a CR is used to allow Congress and the administration time to make final changes to the appropriations bills. However, this year, it appears that the current 111th Congress will not be able to make final changes before the end of 2010, thereby extending the CR into the 112th Congress. If this happens, an effort may be made to extend the CR for the entire FY 2011, essentially freezing spending in FY 2011 at the FY 2010 level. This may be the best possible option for the science community, because flat-level spending would be better than spending cuts.

With the highly disparate views of the President, the House, and the Senate, one wonders if it will be possible to reach agreement on science funding at all, or whether even worse funding gridlock will characterize the 112th Congress.

What is the ASA doing?

As a founding member, the ASA works closely with the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA). For nearly 30 years COSSA has worked to advance the social and behavioral sciences. COSSA was formed in 1981 when President Reagan’s FY 1981 budget called for an 80 percent cut in social and behavioral sciences at NSF. In terms of FY 2012, COSSA leadership has already met to discuss options and programs for the coming year. Key social science allies have been engaged, plans for Capitol Hill briefings have begun, and letters have been sent to important legislators. Through ASA’s Department of Public Affairs and Public Information (PA/PI), the Association will be actively engaged in these efforts.

What can ASA members do?

While ASA leadership will be working in Washington to advance the social and behavioral sciences, members can make their views known to elected officials. This is a fundamental right and essential to the future of social science funding. Members can send letters, make phone calls, and/or meet with elected officials. If elected officials do not hear from you, they will not have a clear picture of what social scientists care about. It will be too late if we assume that someone else will speak up. If you need clarification about a science funding or science policy issue you hear about or might want to respond to, contact Brad Smith, ASA’s new Director of PA/PI (

Most members of Congress do not have the scientific or social science background necessary to make informed complex decisions. But they do want to be more informed, and they want to know their constituents opinions.

As sociologists and allied professionals, we work every day to improve the understanding of the world around us and enhance our nation’s quality of life. This is a professional responsibility. We also have a civic responsibility—to share our knowledge to influence policies and programs that profoundly impact the public and our profession. logosmall

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA.
She can be reached by email at

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