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The Executive Officer’s Column

An Assessment of National Social Science Advocacy

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer

As ASA works to advance the interests of academic, scientific, and practice-oriented sociology in national policy arenas, it needs strong and effective friends in the nation’s capital to help us ensure a positive environment for science in general, the social sciences in particular, and an appropriate—or, at least, adequate—federal investment in the sciences of human behavior. Our primary Washington friend is the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), a welcome partner in a town renowned for raw politics. While ASA promotes and defends the discipline of sociology and increases its visibility, COSSA reinforces our efforts and takes the lead when lobbying is needed. COSSA collaborates with us and others to foster research-facilitating policies, communication, and mutual support among all the sciences as well as to educate the elected, appointed, and career federal officials who control and direct the nation’s federal research enterprise, including data collection and analysis in the federal mission agencies (e.g., census, criminal justice, labor, and educational statistics).

Social Sciences’ Best Friend in Washington

COSSA was founded in May 1981 by social science societies, including ASA and the Social Science Research Council, in response to the then new Reagan Administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) proposal for dramatic cuts in the social and behavioral science program of the National Science Foundation (NSF). While the issues needing social science advocacy are ever-changing, and the political context evolves daily, there has been scarcely a moment’s lull since the Reagan years. COSSA’s plate has increased in size and complexity because of need and its history of success, its seasoned and experienced leadership, and the widespread perception of its effectiveness.

Ten science associations incorporated COSSA in 1982, registering it with the IRS as a 501(c)(6) organization, allowing it to both lobby and educate. COSSA quickly advanced beyond protecting funding to monitoring all federal agencies that support “social and behavioral research and to advocate for a non-politicized research agenda.” COSSA’s mission is to serve as a “bridge between the academic research community and the Washington policymaking world.” Many ASA members keep abreast of these activities through the biweekly newsletter, the COSSA Washington UPDATE. This informative newsletter is electronic, and the ASA Executive Office can ensure you are on the mailing list.

Evaluation of COSSA

Has COSSA done its job? True to form, social scientists hold their organizations accountable. COSSA’s board and executive committee (on both of which ASA has a seat) has initiated several self evaluations, the latest beginning in late 2004. The objectives were to conduct a program review to assure COSSA is performing as intended; an external assessment to see how constituent groups and target audiences perceive COSSA’s work; and strategic planning to identify emerging challenges and organizational priorities while recognizing COSSA’s resource constraints.

I chaired the Sub-Committee on Self-Assessment of the COSSA Executive Committee. Interviewing a broad range of external stakeholders, we obtained views about COSSA’s effectiveness and mission. At the 2005 COSSA Annual Meeting, constituents and Board members discussed these issues, and the Executive Committee discussed the input at a full-day retreat. The assessment’s defining parameters were: mission clarity, inclusiveness, and relevancy; goal- and resource-consistency of practices and policy focuses; range and effectiveness of alliances; impact intensity, location, and potential; resource leveraging and expansion possibilities; leadership of COSSA’s governing body and utilization of its governance structure.


The COSSA Executive Committee and Board concluded, among other things, that the core mission—“To promote the value of social and behavioral science research to policymakers and the public with the goal of enhancing federal support”—should continue and that COSSA has been effective. Stakeholders unanimously agree that COSSA is the major player for the social and behavioral science community on key science policy, and it is the central resource for detailed knowledge about relevant federal science matters.

But to address ever-more serious future challenges, COSSA should enhance some strategies as resources permit, especially those that aggressively, proactively, and visibly make the case that social and behavioral science research is vital to the nation and to informed policymaking. Its main federally focused advocacy should remain a major strategy, but COSSA will be considering advocacy targeted at specific members of Congress, tapping social and behavioral scientists in such educational campaigns. We know sociologists will be responsive when ASA seeks help with this or with a future COSSA Congressional Visits Day. Many sociologists have already participated in COSSA Capitol Hill briefings co-hosted by ASA, and this activity will continue. COSSA is expected to add advocacy for science training programs to its mission, an area relevant to ASA’s Minority Fellowship Program. The self-assessment also determined that increasing alliances with natural and biomedical science advocacy groups, as well as those of the physical sciences, engineering, higher education, and industry, contribute significantly and strategically to COSSA’s visibility and effectiveness. This was evident in mid-2006 when NSF’s social and behavioral science program was challenged by Senator Kay Hutchison, and they came to our support.

Footnotes, of course, has highlighted many of sociology’s successful COSSA collaborations, and while there is not room here to detail all the assessments’ recommendations and praise for COSSA, I urge you to visit the COSSA website to learn more about sociology’s good friend in Washington.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer