May/June 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 4

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From the Executive Officer

Social Sciences under Attack—Again and Worse

sally hillsman

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

The federal budget debates of the past several months have placed the social sciences in policymakers’ crosshairs.

In late March of this year with the passage of HR 933, Senator Tom Colburn (R-OK) succeeded in his long-standing effort to defund Political Science at the National Science Foundation (NSF).  H.R. 933 funds the federal government for the rest of FY 2013, but with the inclusion of an amendment introduced by Colburn, eliminates virtually all NSF funding for research in Political Science Division.

The attack on the social sciences continues with House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith’s proposed bill that would reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, but would also prevent NSF from funding any social science research.  Smith stated in a meeting with pro-business lobbyists and others that the country needs “good science,” and he highlighted the physical sciences and engineering, which, under his proposed plan, would receive the money saved by cutting social science research. In April, Smith circulated a draft bill, the “High Quality Research Act,” that would require the NSF director to certify that all grants being funded be “ground breaking,” “not duplicative,” and important to our national interest. In addition, on April 25, Smith sent a letter to NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett asking for the peer review notes for four social science grants that he does not like, putting still more political pressures on the peer review system. In a May 6 letter to Smith, ASA asked him to withdraw his letter to Marrett. In this letter to Smith ASA stated,

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“We believe that your letter could encourage an extremely harmful change to NSF’s scientific peer review system that has made our system of knowledge creation the best in the world—open, accessible and merit-based regardless of personal or academic status. The bureaucratic scientific systems of our nearest national competitors do not have this advantage. Scientific peer review is a tested process that has spurred our nation’s innovation infrastructure for the last 60 years, and it is the standard to which other countries aspire for how to evaluate requests for public and private support of scientific inquiry. It is especially critical to funding basic science where the new knowledge and societal benefits resulting from the investments cannot be assured in advance.”

Another reason for concern is recent remarks made by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Cantor stated that medical research should be a priority but social science research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should not be supported. Evidently, Cantor supports funding research that could provide cures for heart disease, diabetes, etc., but not research that could prevent people from developing these diseases or ensure they effectively use the treatments that are available.

In addition to these funding and peer review issues, bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to remove the mandatory status of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) that replaced and vastly improved the Decennial Census long form. What happens if data collection for the nation’s most important baseline data source for states, counties, cities, and neighborhoods becomes a matter of individual choice? Will there be the reliable and timely data necessary to guide the effective distribution of public funding to states and localities for schools, roads and local transit, health care, rural development projects, services for people with disabilities and veterans, and other basic societal functions? Census Bureau evidence as well as evidence from the social science research community has repeatedly shown that making the ACS voluntary will undermine the reliability of the data, but these concerns appear to fall on deaf ears in Congress.


Legislators don’t recognize
the positive consequences
when they rely on our research
in their policy makng partly
because we and others
do not remind them.

Why are the social sciences under political attack? Is it because we aren’t viewed as part of “real” science? Or is it because legislators view us as academic liberal elites? Is it because we social scientists have not been effective at communicating the value of the contributions our research makes? Or because legislators don’t like our research results? Probably all of these. But it is also because legislators haven’t experienced sufficient negative consequences when they oppose social science funding! We need louder voices. Legislators don’t recognize the positive consequences when they rely on our research in their policy making partly because we and others do not remind them. Social scientists are certainly not large campaign contributors and our disciplines don’t bring in the big research bucks to university systems (although among the social sciences, sociology brings in the most!). And we haven’t convinced industry or business leaders to champion our cause with legislators even when they acknowledge the value of our work. We are often not vocal constituents.

What Can Be Done?

In addition to our support of the work of COSSA (Consortium of Social Science Associations) here in Washington under the able leadership of Howard Silver and Angela Sharpe, we are trying new things. In collaboration with other social science associations, the ASA is planning to test the effectiveness of visits to the local district offices of key congressional legislators during the spring and summer. This initiative (the “BSSR Champions Initiative”) (Behavioral and Social Science Research) strives to foster relationship between local social scientists, national scientific organizations, members of Congress, and their staff. We will also try to identify local business and industry leaders who understand and support the importance of social science to join us in these visits. Already sociologists have met with Chairman Lamar Smith and Representative Larry Bucshon (R-IN), and are scheduled to meet with Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) on May 22.

Our hope is that stronger relationships will provide more engagement by social scientists with their own congressional representatives and improve political leaders’ understanding of the value of our work to their’s. 

If you are interested in participating in these meetings, contact Bradley Smith, ASA Director of Public Affairs, at

Even if you aren’t interested in face-to-face engagement, consider calling your representatives at their local offices, sending them letters or attending a town hall meeting. We know from colleagues in the federal government that legislators do listen to what they hear from their constituents, especially when such communications remind them of the local consequences of failure to fund research, collect meaningful ACS data, or otherwise support science and science education. Tips on how to communicate with your legislators can be found on the ASA webpage at

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


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