May/June 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 5

download pdfDownload full issue pdf


From the Executive Officer
sally hillsman

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

Federal Budget Bills Threaten Social Science Research and Jobs   

The Large Print: Eliminate ACS and, Oh Yes, Political Science

During a May debate in the U.S. House of Representatives over the Census Bureau and National Science Foundation (NSF) funding bill, House Republicans, in the name of austerity, continued to make program cuts.

First, on May 9, the House voted (232 – 190) for an amendment offered by Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) to eliminate the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS is vital to lawmakers and other policymakers at the local, state, and federal level by providing annual information necessary to make sound decisions.  Long in planning, ACS replaced the long form on the Decennial Census in favor of more regular micro-economic, social and demographic data collection.  (Sociologists are among the heaviest applied research and scholarly users of these data.) On one hand, this decision, if it holds in the Senate, would actually be a significant spending reduction in the federal budget, unlike most of the other so-called austerity cuts. Perhaps that’s why the debate lasted a fraction longer than the second important vote of the day—the voice vote on an amendment from Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to prohibit the National Science Foundation (NSF) from spending appropriated funds on the NSF political science program. This whopping $11 million “austerity” move is not really austerity since the dollars stay in the NSF budget; NSF just can’t spend the (paltry) amount on scientific research on political structures and processes.  In justifying the cuts in the name of austerity, Rep. Flake made fun of some of the grants and claimed Harvard and Yale political science departments did not need federal funds because they had huge endowments. (I wish it were funny; who’s next?)

Vantage Point

Another “whopping” austerity move is to limit federal employees, including federal scientists, from interacting with the scientific community and other stakeholders. This legislation will make it far more difficult for federal employees to travel to scientific meetings.  Sharing new research by presenting papers, keeping NSF, NIH and other science program officers current on the latest research conducted in their fields, and providing forums for science agencies to discuss new research opportunities will wither as fewer federal employees will be able to attend conferences. Moreover, these “austerity” cuts may increase rather than decrease federal agency costs. Conferences allow broad interaction between government officials and significant numbers of academic experts in one place at one time. Attendance at a conference can reduce the need to bring dozens of experts as potential consultants to Washington; conferences promote contacts and serendipitous learning that can be vital to the effective functioning of government agencies. This is the proverbial “baby out with the bathwater” as Congress reacts to the widely publicized (and undoubtedly outrageous) excesses of the U.S. General Services Administration conference.

But the scariest austerity move of all has already passed both houses of Congress and is now law. The issue lurks behind all the congressional budget debates cloaked in a word no one outside of Washington has ever heard: sequestration.

The Small Print: Sequestration

Last August, as part of the Congressional compromise that increased the U.S. debt limit, the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) was enacted. This bill increased the federal debt limit but also put in place a spending sequestration (that is, an automatic, largely across-the-board, spending reduction) to reduce the federal budget deficit if Congress fails to enact legislation by January 15, 2012, which aims to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

Congress failed to enact such legislation and sequestration is scheduled to happen on January 2, 2013, to both defense and non-defense programs. In FY 2013, security programs will be automatically limited to $546 billion and non-security discretionary spending will be limited to $501 billion.1

This will mean cuts of 5 to 10 percent to the budgets of key federal social science research programs in FY 2013. By FY 2021, when the statutory sequester is over, according the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “general science programs will be cut by 29 percent, health programs will be cut by 22 percent, and energy programs cut by 67 percent.2" This will devastate the United States’ research infrastructure.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) already has a grant-funding success rate under 20 percent. Imagine the success rate if NIH has a 5 to 10 percent decline in funding next year.

The NIH is developing options that it could implement to deal with current and future budget cuts even without sequestration. Some of the options being discussed include doing nothing (and letting success rates fall lower), reducing or limiting the size of awards, limiting the number of awards held by a PI, limiting the amount of funds a PI can hold, and limiting salaries of PIs. All of these options will have negative impacts on individual investigators and their potential for discoveries. Other budget cuts will certainly impact the major social, demographic, and economic surveys conducted by federal agencies that reflect much of the “big social science” infrastructure.

Congress can still stop the sequestration from occurring, but it will need to make very difficult bipartisan decisions prior to the end of the year. Right now, given the nature of the austerity debates in the House, such as those noted above, it will take a great deal of work on the Senate side to make this happen.  The House of Representatives Republicans are trying to deflect any sequestration impact on the defense budget by introducing the Sequester Replacement Act of 2012 (H.R. 4966), which would move defense department programs from the sequester list and target non-defense agencies (e.g., the Department of Education, Health and Human Services) and programs that benefit the most underrepresented in our society (e.g.,food stamps, and health care). This bill probably will not be considered by the Senate, but it will be used in campaign ads.


The climate of austerity is forcing the United States to eat its seed corn. The country will not be able to invest in the social, technological, economic, and scientific infrastructure, that is necessary to provide our society’s foundation for the 21st Century. We will not have the resources to educate our youth and prevent the next generation from falling behind.

This era of austerity is creating “trickle-down economics” as federal budget contractions contribute to state and local distress. State and local governments are cutting jobs—from teachers to firemen—to meet their state constitutional mandates for balanced budgets. Recent employment surveys show that private sector job growth is occurring, albeit slowly; but the current decline in public sector jobs is now dragging down state and local economies. Education is a big component of the public sector, from K-12 through higher education.

What Must We Do NOW?

As social scientists, we must be vocal. Telling the media, public officials, friends, and colleagues about how federal programs like the NSF, NIH, National Institute of Justice, and the Census Bureau are vital to our country and the research we do in support of the public good.  And we need to do it now. This budget process is a crisis, and it needs to be settled before the final federal funding bills for FY 2013 are completed. The FY 2013 budget process starts October 1, 2012: before the election. Sequestration kicks in on January 2, 2013.

The best communication strategy is personal and is addressed at the local offices of your congressional representatives and senators. It is an election year, and they will be listening to their constituents locally.  If they are supportive, find out what you can do to help them garner support from their colleagues in other districts or states. Make sure your university lobbyists are focusing on the issues that matter to social scientists. Ask what you can do to help. Write op-ed pieces or letters to the editor in your local newspapers—that’s what voters read.

Don’t wait.

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


  1. Congressional Research Service, Report R41965,

Back to Top of Page

Print this article discuss this article

Featured Advertiser:

Join the ASA Wikipedia Initiative and Deploy the Power of Wikipedia to Represent the Discipline of Sociology

Back to Front Page of Footnotes | Table of Contents