July/August 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 6

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From the Executive Officer
sally hillsman

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

Dangerous Times for the Federal Support of Social Science

Last December, I wrote in this column about the potential impact of the 2010 mid-term elections on federal support for social science research. The news was not good then, and it is worse now. But the science community has stepped up to the plate and is having an impact.

According to the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), key members of Congress continue to offer legislation and amendments to the FY 2012 appropriations bill that could cut or eliminate social and behavioral research funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). Some arguments for these cuts reflect themes from Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) recent report criticizing NSF’s grant-making decisions and the grant management of NSF and its researchers. Other critics argue that social and behavioral research is not part of the mission of NSF or NIH. For instance, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, recently said that NSF should be funding the "hard sciences" not the "soft sciences" such as sociology, economics, and political science.

Not everyone shares these views. Influential columnist (and recipient of the ASA 2011 Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues) David Brooks wrote on July 7th in theNew York Times, "Fortunately, today we are in the middle of a golden age of behavioral research….Yet in the middle of this golden age of behavioral research there is a bill working through Congress that would eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced—by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits" (www.nytimes.com/2011/07/08/opinion/08brooks.html?_r=2&emc=eta1).

So too, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), Chair of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, embraces social science research. On July 7, his committee proposedholding the NSF 2012 budget at its current level. ScienceInsider reported that Wolf would have liked to have done more for NSF (the President’s budget proposed  a 13% increase). But he strongly resisted the push to treat everything in the bill the same with across the board cuts. Wolf said, "Under the allocation, we worked hard to protect the sciences. I think that NSF came out very, very well in the bill...." (news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/
). Zero is a very favorable number when followed by the word "cuts"!

Solving the U.S. Debt Problem by Cutting Cheap Things?

Completing the annual appropriations bills for NSF and NIH will not occur until September, or, later, but undoubtedly the resolution of the U.S. debt ceiling debate will have a huge impact. While Footnotes has no crystal ball, current trends in that debate suggest drastic cuts to non-security discretionary spending is likely to be part (or all) of the resolution. That narrows the target for cuts to a small portion of the government’s spending, with the social sciences being a vulnerable sliver of that portion.

Non-security discretionary spending— the portion of the budget that provides funding for NSF and NIH, the federal statistical agencies including the U.S. Census Bureau, and the intramural and extramural research programs of mission agencies (e.g., in agriculture, labor, justice, environment among others)—accounts for approximately 17 percent of the federal budget. The data collected by federal statistical agencies is a vital infrastructure for social science research; the collection of administrative data by federal mission agencies is becoming part of that infrastructure as well. Funding social science research outside of government is but a sliver of the remaining science funding.

The other broad areas of federal spending, of course, are discretionary security budgets (military, homeland security), so-called entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security), and other areas such as interest payments and disaster aid. But entitlement programs and defense spending have the largest price tags. 

What Happened to the Surplus?

In 2001, the U.S. government was projecting a yearly surplus of $128 billion. So what happened? Did the federal government drastically increase its non-discretionary spending? A look at the numbers from the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee says no. For a Table on discretionary spending and revenue since 2001, see the Statement on Discretionary Spending from U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations Chairman Inouye at http://1.usa.gov/q0nZYH.

Non-security discretionary spending has remained flat over the last decade while spending on military and homeland security, and entitlement programs have increased substantially. With the simultaneous reduction in tax revenues, these escalating costs have caused most of the current budget problems. The only potential solution receiving bi-partisan support on Capitol Hill, however, is cutting non-security discretionary spending, including the "cheap things" like social science research.

What ASA Is Doing

As a founding member, the ASA works closely with COSSA. I am currently chair of its Executive Committee. Established in 1981 when President Reagan’s FY 1981 budget called for an 80 percent cut in social and behavioral sciences at NSF, COSSA has worked to advance the social and behavioral sciences. For FY 2012, COSSA leadership has already met to discuss options and testified before congressional committees. Key science allies have been engaged, Capitol Hill briefings held, and joint letters are being sent to important legislators.

Of particular note, is our work with COSSA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to send a letter on July 11 in support of NSF to the Chair and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2011/0711nsf_letter.shtml?elq=
. It was signed by more than 140 scientific associations and universities. Of long-range significance, this letter explicitly emphasizes: the collaboration of the scientific associations and universities; the interdependence of all the sciences in the production of a balanced, robust science and technology research portfolio (nothing "hard" or "soft" about any science); and scientific peer review as the foundation of a merit-based system of grant awards.

As part of the educational mission of ASA in our nation’s capital, the ASA’s Public Affairs and Public Information (PA/PI) Office will continue to work throughout the summer to advance the social and behavioral sciences in Washington, especially as the FY 2012 budget progresses. PA/PI will also begin to report the latest policy news and information on our new blog, www.Speak4Sociology.org which will launch in late July.

What Can ASA Members Do?

In addition to becoming well informed, consider contacting your elected officials. They need to hear from us or they will not have a clear picture of what social scientists care about. Do not assume that someone else will speak up.

Most members of Congress do not have the science background necessary to inform their complex science policy decisions. However, some want to be educated, and all want to know their constituents’ opinions as we head toward another election cycle. Find information on your U.S. Representative and U.S. Senators online at www.usa.gov/contact/elected/shtml or contact their Washington, DC, office by calling the U.S. Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

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

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