Challenges Remain for Social/Behavioral Science as Pace of Bills Begins to Slow: Scientists Urged to Get Involved

June 24, 2014

by Paula Skedsvold

With much enthusiasm, House and Senate Appropriations leaders began the calendar year with hopes to pass all twelve spending bills. On the heels of the Bipartisan Budget Act, it appeared that it might be possible. Now, with three months left before the next fiscal year begins, amendments to the spending bills are getting in the way.

In the Senate, several spending bills made their way through the Committee, and were packaged as a minibus bill for the Senate floor. One of those bills, the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Appropriations bill, provided a small increase of 1.16% for NSF and passed through Committee in bipartisan fashion with no threats to social and behavioral sciences. In anticipation of harmful amendments on the Senate floor, FABBS issued an Action Alert urging Senators to vote against any amendments that singled out areas of science for cuts. Late last week, the package of three spending bills was pulled from the Senate floor because no agreement could be reached on how to handle amendments to the bill.

A week earlier, the Senate Appropriations Committee postponed markup of the spending bill that funds NIH, the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations bills, a measure that often attracts policy riders and has proved more contentious in recent years.  It had survived Subcommittee markup with a small increase for NIH and no threats to social and behavioral sciences. While Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MA) is still hopeful that the bills will move, time is getting shorter as the November elections approach.

On the House side, leaders managed to get through the chamber their CJS bill providing an increase for NSF of over 3% -- and without harm to social and behavioral sciences. The spending bill that includes NIH funding, however, is indirectly getting caught up in election-year politics. Chairman Jack Kingston (R-GA) is in the midst of a primary run-off for a Senate seat, so there is less time and attention to work through the details of getting the bill through the House.

Yet challenges remain for the social and behavioral sciences. Congress will need to pass one or more bills to fund federal government programs beginning on October 1. In FY 2013, in the rush to pass a must-pass spending bill, an amendment was attached that restricted funding for political science research at NSF. FABBS and our colleagues across the sciences are visiting House and Senate offices to ensure that any amendments that target particular areas of science for cuts are defeated, whether they are attached to spending bills or are specifically laid out in legislation. 

The biggest visible threat remains the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) bill, which reauthorizes NSF. Coming out of committee, the bill cuts funding for the NSF SBE Directorate by 42%. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) supported the bill, but his recent defeat in the Virginia primaries is prompting a shift in leadership. It is unclear at this time how the change will impact the floor schedule. On the Senate side, the reauthorization bill has not been introduced yet, but all signs point to a solid bill for NSF that supports all the sciences funded by the agency.

Beyond the appropriations and authorization bills, there are larger issues at play that will influence federal spending in general, support for science, and treatment of the social and behavioral sciences. The federal government continues to operate within agreements that set ten-year budget caps; sequestration (which started in FY 2013, was partially restored in FY 2014, and will be in play again in FY 2016 discussions); and the current Bipartisan Budget Act that set new caps for FY 2014 and FY 2015. 

And there are new challenges for federal discretionary spending. For years, there have been calls for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but now the movement seems to be gaining traction with some state leaders. A balanced budget amendment would provide no flexibility during recessions, and the mandated cuts would likely come from the discretionary side of the budget where science funding is situated. Members of Congress should address federal deficits in a responsible way by coming to an agreement that will allow the country to address concerns over a reasonable period of time. 

This election season is a perfect time for scientists to speak with others in their community about what science is, how advances in science benefit the public, and why federal support is necessary. Get involved – at schools, local businesses, community events, and campaign stops. Indeed, former House Appropriations Chairman John Edward Porter recently stated:

“Scientists must take off their lab coats and engage the people of their communities and states. They must be willing to defend and spread the good news about science. If scientists themselves are unwilling to defend science, how can we expect others to do so?”