January 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 1

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Looking Back at Three Decades at COSSA

Howard Silver, COSSA

As I leave COSSA (Consortium of Social Science Associations) after 30 years, 25 as its Executive Director, I first want to thank the American Sociological Association for its strong support for COSSA’s important work and its willingness to highlight our activities in Footnotes. I also want to express my appreciation to the three ASA Executive Officers I have had the privilege of working with—Bill D’Antonio, Felice Levine, and Sally Hillsman. All have served as Chairs of the COSSA Executive Committee.

In addition, I have been honored to work with many distinguished sociologists. Interacting with Cora Marrett in her many positions of leadership at the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been a pleasure. William Julius Wilson served as COSSA’s President and gave a scintillating speech at COSSA’s 20th Anniversary celebration. Karen Cook and Gary Sandefur both served with distinction on COSSA’s Board of Directors; Robert Hauser revitalized the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (DBASSE) at the National Academies; and Judith Auerbach served on the COSSA staff and later spoke at the Annual Meeting. Patricia White has been the bedrock of the sociology program at NSF for almost as long as I have been at COSSA. There were many others who served on the Board, presented the results of their research at our many congressional briefings on Capitol Hill, and, as noted, spoke at COSSA’s annual meetings.

During the past 30 years I have dealt with five presidential administrations, 16 Congresses of all political combinations, nine NSF directors, six NIH directors, seven presidential science advisers, six assistant airectors for the NSF Social, Behavioral and Economics (SBE) sciences directorate, four directors of the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR), and countless other officials in both the executive and legislative branches. As I have often said: “It has been a long, strange trip.”

Triumphs and Difficulties

COSSA has had many triumphs as well as some difficulties. The formation of the SBE directorate in 1991, the establishment of OBSSR, and the creation of the position of Assistant Director for the SBE science at the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) were all COSSA driven.

Yet, problems have occurred from the beginning of my tenure. One of my earliest activities at COSSA, along with then-Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner Janet Norwood and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), was helping to save the National Longitudinal Studies (NLS) of Labor Market Experiences, as it was known then. In the category of the more things change, the more they remain the same (of which there are many examples), the future of the NLS is once again uncertain. Another example comes from my first visits with congressional staff in 1983, when I was warned that social scientists need to be careful about their grant titles. A few weeks ago, in a visit with a democratic senator’s staff person, it was clear that this still posed problems for this senator when it came to supporting funds for our research.

During the past 30 years there have been significant attempts by Congress and the various administrations to limit or eliminate funding for the SBE sciences. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were attacks on NIH’s support for research on sexual behavior, which would later resurface in 2003 and 2004. In 1995–96, then-House Science Committee Chairman Robert Walker (R-PA) wanted to eliminate the SBE directorate at NSF. In 2006–07, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) argued that our sciences do not belong at NSF. In 2009, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) wanted to eliminate the political science program at NSF, a position later emulated in 2012 by Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ). That same year Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) tried to eliminate economics research at NIH, and Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) sponsored an amendment that passed the House to eliminate the American Community Survey. All of these were eventually thwarted by COSSA working with its members, friends in Congress, and its allies in the rest of the science and higher education communities. Finally, in 2013, Coburn returned with a successful amendment to the Fiscal Year 2013 appropriations bill that restricted NSF’s political science program to funding projects that “promote the national security and economic development of the United States.” The amendment was eliminated in the most recent spending bill.

Various Supporters

At the same time, from the beginning COSSA has enjoyed significant support from the rest of the science and higher education community. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has been a significant partner for COSSA in many endeavors and continues to help in the current difficulties by organizing inter-society letters of support. The Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) as well as individual universities have also helped with COSSA’s efforts to promote and defend the SBE sciences. From 1994–2000, I was the Chair of the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF), which focuses on advocating increased NSF funding. This brought me into contact with the leadership of many other scientific societies outside of the SBE world. It has paid off in many ways as the science community has stood with COSSA in continuing to oppose attacks on our sciences.

Working in coalitions has been an important part of COSSA’s success. Aside from CNSF, COSSA has also taken leadership positions in many different coalitions and helped create two important ones, chaired by COSSA Deputy Director Angela Sharpe: the Coalition for the Advancement of Science Through Behavioral and Social Sciences Research and the Coalition to Promote Research. ASA is involved in these coalitions as well, and they serve as a vehicle to meet with key decision makers, exchange information, and organize responses to threats.

COSSA Moving Forward

The COSSA newsletter, COSSA Washington Update, remains our key communication instrument. It covers news and events from Washington affecting the social and behavioral science community. We have also moved into the social media age with a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/SocialScienceAssociations and a Twitter account (@cossadc.)

The annual meeting has evolved into the COSSA Colloquium. Taking place over a day and a half, it continues to feature presentations from policy makers as well as panels on important issues facing the social and behavioral sciences. This year we had the special honor of a strong supportive address from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). We also appreciate the generosity of SAGE Publications in helping to support this event.

Finally, as we continue to cope with the current threats to funding for our sciences from the House Science Committee and others, COSSA will remain ever vigilant. Again, we appreciate the support from ASA and all our other members. As the late Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon once said: “Perhaps the most important role of the social sciences, among their many roles, is to provide this basic fund of knowledge about ourselves and our institutions – a foundation of reality for the thinking and decision making of legislators, managers, both governmental and corporate, and all of us as citizens, householders, and employees.” As he also noted, this is what makes the social and behavioral sciences the true “hard sciences.” Again, thank you for the support.


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