December 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 9

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The Changing Political Landscape:
COSSA 1981-2011

Policy leaders examine the past and look toward the future

Brad Smith, Director ASA Office of Public Affairs and Public Information


Norman B. Anderson, American Psychological
Association, Sally T. Hillsman, ASA,
Howard Silver, COSSA, and Myron Guttman,
National Science Foundation, at the COSSA
30th Annual Meeting. Photo by Chris Flynn

Social scientists need to communicate the value and importance of their research to policy makers in Washington, DC, and throughout America if they want to receive more financial support in the future, a Congressman told Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) members.

Representative David Price (D-NC) made his comments at COSSA’s 30th anniversary colloquium in Washington, DC, on November 3, where he was one of several distinguished social science policy leaders who addressed the crowd of more than 100 attendees. COSSA was established in 1981 to fight the budget cuts to the social and behavioral science budgets at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and elsewhere in the federal government proposed by the Reagan Administration.

Price, a political scientist by training, surveyed the current political situation in Washington for the attendees. He declared that there are currently “two games in town” with regard to Congress. One is the annual appropriations process and the other is the Super Deficit Reduction Committee.

The congressman asserted that be believes the Super Committee was “off target” with its emphasis on immediate deficit and debt reduction. He argued that improving the current economic situation and recovery should take precedence over long-term concerns. He also indicated that he couldn’t understand the “political malice” demonstrated by some of his Republican colleagues in the House and their support for “pre-Herbert Hoover economics.” He expressed opposition to of “indiscriminate cutting” that some GOP members have endorsed.

While Price assured the audience that NSF’s FY 2012 funding level will have a “reasonably good outcome” all things considered, he said that the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) budget may not fare as well during this period of austerity. Price added that both NSF and NIH received considerable funding under the stimulus bill in 2009.

In conclusion, Price argued that the country needs long-term investments in public education, community college training, infrastructure, and the research enterprise. He hoped that the Super Committee would recommend balanced revenue and spending plan, but he was not optimistic.

Political Landscape

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute gave the colloquium’s keynote address. He served as the first chair of COSSA’s Executive Committee and congratulated the organization on becoming a “serious Washington player” since his tenure as chair.

Mann suggested that the past 30 years have seen the enhancement of the social and behavioral sciences with increased respect and greater interaction with the other sciences. Although new assaults on the social and behavioral sciences remain part of the political landscape, they are mainly idiosyncratic in character and less systematic than they were in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Mann noted that the current emphasis on shrinking budgets, particularly domestic spending, will have a much more profound effect on the social and behavioral sciences than specific assaults on those sciences. The budget situation has been exacerbated, Mann suggested, by the problems of the U.S. political system, including the utter dysfunction of a divided Congress.

Mann continued and said that the “seeds” for the difficulties with the political system were planted in the 1960s and 1970s; it took a long time for them to flourish. This led to unprecedented levels of pessimism in the country and low levels of“trust in government.” The current level of approval for Congress is at nine percent, but, Mann expressed surprise that it was even that high.

He cited the example of the Debt Ceiling Crisis as unprecedented “hostage taking” and the “worst, irresponsible episode” of policy making in his over 40 years of watching Washington DC. “It’s worse than it looks,” Mann suggested. He also told the crowd not to take the Super Committee too seriously. “We are not about to reach a Kumbaya moment,” he said, since we have a “political war going on,” with a take-no-prisoners approach.

Mann explained that the mismatch between a party system that is ideological, parliamentary, and homogenous, and a governance system that is based on separation of powers, with established norms that lead to compromises has led to dysfunction. In this era, majorities do not rule rather extreme partisanship and polarization dominate. What also makes this era so difficult, Mann said, is that facts, evidence, and science are sacrificed for the need to challenge the legitimacy of the political opposition. However, electoral change in 2012 could alter the system he concluded.

Seamless Integration of Sciences

Moving away from the political, NSF Director Subra Suresh spoke later in the colloquium about the “relevance, importance, and centrality” of the social and behavioral sciences and how the “seamless integration of the social sciences with the natural science and engineering” is key to the future of science.

The importance of social and behavioral sciences, Suresh asserted, comes from science’s role in meeting the needs of society and from new globalized culture and its breakthroughs in telecommunications and transportation. A technologically advanced society needs the social sciences for examining social networks and enlarged human interconnectedness.

Going forward—in an era of constrained resources—Suresh stated that NSF would remain focused on its core principles—supporting excellent basic science research and focusing on building the pipeline of students from K-12 to graduate school.
He concluded that NSF has produced enormous economic and social value, citing its support of almost 200 Nobel Prize winners, but policy makers need to hear from scientists in a “unified voice” to counter the growing lack of respect by some for evidence and science.

Diving into the Details

The colloquium moved on to focus on the specific contributions to public policy from the social and behavioral sciences over the past 30 years: economist Charles Schultze discussed economic well being, psychologist James Jackson discussed race and ethnicity, criminologist Al Blumstein discussed crime reduction. Research Scientist at Columbia University, Roberta Balstad, focused on human behavior and environmental change, and American Psychological Association Executive Officer Norman Anderson looked at health and behavior. The attendees were treated with two intense discussion panels on “SBE Science in STEM Education” and “Changing Demographics and Immigration Policy.” These detailed perspectives dovetailed with the broad topics discussed by Price, Mann, and Suresh.

Looking towards the future Robert Groves, Director of the U.S. Census Bureau; Myron Guttman, Assistant Director of NSF Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate; and Robert Kaplan, Director of NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, provided the attendees with a glimpse of the new tools and research opportunities they are looking to use in the future.


At COSSA’s celebration of 30 years of successful advocacy, Ken Prewitt, COSSA’s current President, former Census Bureau Director, and a key actor in COSSA’s creation, presided over the colloquium. The attendees received an examination of the past 30 years, including our nation’s political and economic landscape and the contributions of the social and behavioral sciences to public policy. The 2011 meeting took a special look at the current budget-constrained policy era, focusing on future research topics and data collections in these sciences. All in all the colloquium was a celebration of the past successes and a challenge to build future accomplishments.

Special thanks to Howard Silver, executive director COSSA, for his contributions to this article

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