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On March 10, Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) introduced the Frontiers in Research, Science and Technology Act (H.R. 4186), or the FIRST Act. This bill replaces the expired America COMPETES Act to reauthorize and approve funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other STEM programs. Under the FIRST Act, NSF’s funding authorization for FY2014 and 2015 are lower than inflation, but that is not the bad news.
What is the bad news, and dangerous both now and as a precedent, is that the FIRST bill doesn’t leave it up to NSF to distribute the congressionally authorized funding to its various science programs. Rather, the House Republicans directly authorize funding to various science programs by authorizing NSF funds directly to each directorate thereby making it a political decision as to what sciences are worthy of federal support and which are not. The FIRST Act cuts the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate by 42 percent from current funding levels, authorizing it at $150 million.
Are you surprised to learn that the social, behavioral, and economic sciences lose out big time? This cut is so draconian that it would push SBE funding levels lower than they have been since 1998.
While there has been a little pushback in the House (Rep. Dan Lipinski [D-IL] successfully put $50 million back into the SBE budget line on March 13), we don’t know how long this will remain. And it is not enough.
Beyond micromanaging which sciences get funding, the FIRST Act micromanages NSF’s grant application and review process, with its foundation of merit review by scientific peers.
Who gets grant funding? The FIRST Act limits the number of awards that NSF can make to any principle investigator.
What research is funded? The FIRST Act mandates that an NSF official must certify that each grant funded is in the “national interest” or has the potential to “increase economic competitiveness, advance health and welfare, develop STEM workforce and scientific literacy, increase partnerships between academia and industry, support national defense, and promote the progress of science.”
A week before the introduction of the FIRST Act, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) introduced the American COMPETES Act of 2014. This bill is everything the FIRST Act is not. Johnson’s bill authorizes NSF funding for five years, does not micromanage directorate-level funding, and authorizes an increase of 5 percent each year. More importantly, the bill includes a “sense of Congress” statement that expresses the value of all sciences:
The National Science Foundation must continue to support unfettered competitive, merit reviewed basic research across all fields of science and engineering, including the social and behavioral sciences. (Sec. 302)
The social sciences as part of the science community as a whole appreciate that Rep. Johnson has shared her support for the social sciences, but the House is currently unlikely to let the new COMPETES Act go to a vote.
We social scientists know the benefits of our research. Unfortunately, we have not convinced enough of those outside the academy of that value. We know that critics of social science research do not understand that our research, funded in part by NSF SBE, helps policymakers make informed decisions about investing in schools, improving emergency communication and evacuation, identifying behavioral targets for better health outcomes, improving regulatory guidelines, and enhancing sustainability practices among a host of other critical areas. Peer-reviewed research builds on past peer-reviewed research and leads to unknown discoveries from all areas of science; the discoveries benefit society, create new things and new strategies, and solve problems for today and tomorrow. Basic social, physical, and life science research are the building blocks for real-world applications and therefore need our government’s support in order to innovate. Educating the young helps spread this understanding, but it is an incremental process that does not address the immediate challenges that undermine science in our competitive and political world.
Building the base: ASA public information, press outreach and social media. Through its Public Affairs and Public Information (PAPI) Department, ASA works daily to promote the importance of sociological research to policymakers, the media, and the public. For instance, last year the ASA distributed 58 press releases/media advisories and responded to 523 media inquires—connecting the media to sociologists doing important research that inform the issues the media are exploring. The PAPI staff also directs the media to important emerging issues illustrated by our research. When a situation arises, such as the FIRST Act, we turn the attention of the media to the destructive consequences for science. On the ASA press release website there is a #socresearch Twitter feed, which allows reporters to see the latest in sociology research from around the globe—using this hashtag we encourage members to share their research too. In addition, the Association maintains a subject-matter experts database—a resource that PAPI consults when journalists request interviews. PAPI staff created a Communication Tools website, which provides tips for sociologists on how to best communicate with the media. PAPI also directs ASA’s Twitter (@ASAnews) and Facebook presence—sharing sociology news and information with thousands of followers.
PAPI and other programs of the Association are also working closely with the Task Force on Using Social Media to Increase the Visibility of Sociological Research, established by President Annette Lareau to sharpen and expand what ASA, our members, and other sociologists can do to build the base of support the social sciences need.
PAPI also works within coalitions of our peer scientific societies to advance sociology on Capitol Hill and in the Executive Branch. Recently, in response to the introduction of the FIRST Act, PAPI staff worked with the Coalition for National Science Funding on a letter in opposition to the bill. The letter was signed by 75 diverse organizations within 8.5 hours and was distributed to all members of Subcommittee on Research and Technology prior to the first hearing on the bill. In addition, PAPI staff met with SBE directorate leaders and discussed how the directorate would fund its research priorities if the proposed cuts of 42 percent were enacted.
Addressing crises—The COSSA Action Center: ASA has worked with COSSA (The Consortium of Social Science Associations of which ASA is a founding and governing member) over the past year to establish an online social science legislative action center (cqrcengage.com/cossa/home). As planned, the action center was ready to generate responses to the FIRST Act. ASA alerted members to the crisis and urged them to use the action center’s easy tools to contact their Representative. While I always worry when we flood your inboxes with ASA communications, we needed to do so on this occasion and will continue to do so when it is critical that Congress hears from sociologists before they make decisions that negatively impact the discipline.
The COSSA Action Center provides ASA members and social scientists from other COSSA member associations the ability to seamlessly communicate with policymakers and receive timely input from COSSA about important policy concerns. If you have not done so already, I urge you to go to the Action Center (cqrcengage.com/cossa/home) to take action! Sociology needs you.
Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.