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The Executive Officer’s Column

A Full Menu of Public Policy, Science

An increasingly full menu of national and state-level policy issues on public, social, and science matters is adding to ASA’s plate of activities for 2004. It is also a year in which presidential election politics will inexorably add spice to nearly every debate and discussion from which legislative, regulatory, or executive branch actions might emerge. Stir in the flavor of the current social context that Americans can already taste (namely, that we are accelerating into an increasingly uncertain future) and the appetite of sociologists is stimulated for new challenges to theory, research, and practice. With our social world being reshaped by national economies converging on a “global world,” computer technology providing “virtual worlds,” solar system exploration bringing us virtually to “other worlds,” stem cell and cloning research presenting a “new world” of social and ethical challenges, and molecular technology promising magical, though not problem-free, applications of “nano worlds,” sociology has never been a more relevant participant at the scientific table. One of ASA’s challenges in the public policy arena is to ensure that the funding opportunities are there for sociologists to participate in this scientific feast.

Prix Fixed

The federal research budgets for agencies supporting sociological research are undergoing change. The resources are still rising, but the bill covering the entire menu of necessary scientific work will be much larger. Returning to work last month, Congress passed the 2004 federal science spending appropriation, bringing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a 3.7% increase (a $1-billion increase over 2003) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) a 6% (or $300-million) increase. Some of the latter will support a new $18-million “Human and Social Dynamics” initiative (see p. 5) and a new math and social and behavioral sciences initiative for projects that advance the mathematical or statistical foundations of research in the social, behavioral, or economic sciences (see However, the plan to double the NSF budget required a 15% increase in 2004, considerably more than the 6%. Sadly, such small increases do little to boost NSF’s $200-million Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate in absolute terms. Belt-tightening is upon us.

The nearly $30-billion NIH budget, the largest source of federal funding for academic researchers (about 10% of which is allocated to behavioral and social science), has just entered the down slope following completion of the Clinton-initiated five-year doubling of its budget. While the Defense Department is slated for a hearty 7% increase in FY 2005 budget, NIH faces chronically small increases at the same time it faces significantly larger requests for support. Its increasing number of grant submissions seems partially a result of pressure on public university researchers to seek federal support as the economy has placed the higher education budgets of 42 states on a diet. In late January, for example, the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) reported, “The number of applications received by CSR jumped a dramatic 24% between FY 2002 and 2003—from 55,030 to 68,478 applications.” This unprecedented increase is continuing this year. During the first three months of FY 2004, CSR received more than 23,000 applications, an increase of more than 15% over the number received in the same period last year (20,060). According to Director Rita Colwell, NSF is also experiencing unprecedented increases in applications (see December 2003 Footnotes, p. 3)

Other activities in Washington are also presenting challenges to the conduct of science. ASA has them all on its plate.

NIH Peer Review Remains Under Scrutiny

In late January, the science community was pleased by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni’s much-anticipated formal, public defense of NIH-supported sexual behavior research in a letter to Congress. This research, some of it conducted by sociologists, had come under attack (see September/October 2003 Footnotes, p. 2) by congressional allies of the Traditional Values Coalition. Zerhouni sent letters defending the research and the peer review system to key congressional leaders in response to the late 2003 congressional inquiries into NIH’s research portfolio. His letter described the NIH peer review of the human sexuality research, continued with detailed explanations of a representative selection of the targeted grants, and concluded with strong support for NIH’s funding choices and priorities. ASA is continuing the fight for the social sciences and the nation’s public health to help ensure that science in the area of sexuality remains on the table and is not undercut by ideology or politics. ASA is a member of the new Coalition to Protect Research, and is co-sponsoring a congressional briefing next month on the public health importance of sexuality research.

Peer Review by OMB?

Peer review continues under attack in Washington. ASA and other science groups are concerned about proposed rules to have the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) insert itself into the process. OMB was created in 1970 to advise the president on the federal budget. The President has proposed that OMB staff (who are not scientists) review the science underlying proposed federal agency regulations. And, in addition, OMB has proposed new rules regarding conflict-of-interest for peer review that would disqualify many scientists (because they have been recipients of government research grants), while allowing industry-funded scientists onto peer review panels.

Many scientists are fearful that these changes will bog down important regulations in endless debate and that under the pretext of “peer review,” they could sidetrack many beneficial areas of research (e.g., children’s health, air pollution, climate change). The administration would be able to short-circuit proposed rules simply by questioning the underlying science. The new rules would provide an entré for politics, rather than knowledge, as a basis for evaluating science issues. Among the critics are the National Academies of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Association of American Medical Colleges. The whole scientific community awaits OMB’s next action following receipt of public comments on its proposal.

Further Intelligence Challenges to Higher Education

In the fall, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the International Studies in Higher Education Act (H.R. 3077), which subsidizes foreign area studies in U.S. universities. It authorizes the Secretary of Education to spend more money to promote “foreign language fluency and knowledge of world regions,” and, among other activities, to “foster debate on American foreign policy from diverse perspectives.” The bill stems from a post-September 11, 2001, appreciation of the need to strengthen and enhance American knowledge of international relations, world regions and foreign languages. But, the bill also authorizes the creation of a congressionally mandated advisory board to gather information on international education programs that accept federal support, and to ensure that funded activities “reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs.” The board would advise the Department of Education and the Congress on how Title VI might best meet national needs.

Of the board’s seven members, three would be appointed by the education secretary, two of these three representing federal agencies with national security responsibilities. Many in the academic world are concerned that the advisory board’s activities would amount to surveillance and that its decisions and advice could taint university recipients of Title VI funds, even though the bill explicitly forbids the board from micromanaging instructional content, curriculum, or instruction program. But politicians and academicians are worlds apart on this. One compromise proposal suggested to members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which will consider the bill, is that the advisory board’s goals be established by an independent entity such as the National Academy of Sciences.

"No Child Left Behind" Disfranchises Sociologists as Potential Teachers

Sociology, anthropology, and psychology college majors who become teachers would be disqualified from being considered for “Highly Qualified Teacher” (HQT) status in states that are aligning their public education programs with the national “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLB). HQT status is a requirement in New Jersey, for example, which is aligning its Title I schools’ Curriculum Content Standards. As a result, if a teacher’s college major has been sociology, such teachers would be effectively disenfranchised in the public K-12 education system by being unable to get certified or to properly advance. NCLB identifies (in Section 9101) the following as qualifying core academic content areas: Language Arts, Reading, English, Science, Mathematics, History, Government, Geography, Economics, Arts, Civics, and Foreign Languages. The opportunity to influence the application of this federal law could come during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a. NCLB) and during annual appropriations debates.

States are now under economic and public accountability pressure to align their education programs with the federal position, so the “fight” to get sociology recognized for HQT could rest on two factors: (1) The serious, documented, and publicly acknowledged shortage of good teachers (especially in the sciences) across all states, and (2) The precedent (at least in NJ) of sociology majors having been recognized for HQT prior to NCLB. It would be difficult for states to pass up good-quality, educated people, such as sociology majors, as they scour the nation to fill teacher slots. As an accountability issue, states would have to consider all sources of high-quality personnel to be considered good stewards of education. Given the teacher shortages, the large number of sociology majors, many of whom possess knowledge in empirical and quantitative methods, may be a leveraging point to get sociology back into the HQT game. With many in the political arena believing that NCLB is not receiving appropriations equal to the law’s mandates, there is going to be tremendous public and congressional scrutiny of the implementation of NCLB at both the federal and state levels. The annual appropriations process could be a hotbed of congressional activity to steer the law’s implementation.

The above are just a “sample platter” of what’s on our policy plate for this year, and there no doubt will be new items added to the menu as the year progresses. Sociology’s potential contribution to the policy debates and discussions will be critical to inserting socially informed science expertise into their progress and resolution.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer