House Bill Cutting Social and Behavioral Sciences Funding Advances

March 25, 2014

by Paula Skedsvold  

Over opposition from large segments of the scientific community, a House science subcommittee passed a bill to reauthorize programs at the National Science Foundation. The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) bill (H.R. 4186) introduces new accountability measures for funding research grants and substantially reduces funding for basic research in the social and behavioral sciences. 

In a press release introducing the bill, House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Research and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-IN) stated that the bill “prioritizes science investments” and that “NSF will be held accountable for grants it awards taxpayer dollars.” 

Provisions in the bill as introduced:

  • Set funding levels for NSF that fail to keep pace with inflation;
  • Authorize funding for specific NSF Directorates (a departure from prior reauthorization bills), specifically cutting funding for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate by 42% and the Geosciences Directorate by 3%; and,
  • Legislate new conditions for the approval of individual research grants through NSF. 

During Subcommittee consideration of the bill, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith stated that significant funding should be concentrated in areas that drive economic growth, emphasizing the importance of nanotechnology, aerospace, biology, chemistry, physics, computer science and mathematics. 

On the other side of the aisle, Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) called the bill a “missed opportunity” as prior Congresses had passed COMPETES (reauthorization) bills with “tremendous” bipartisan support. The Congresswoman specifically opposed the cuts to the SBE and Geosciences Directorates, calling them politically motivated. She also commented that the bill’s accountability provisions send a message that “we don’t trust scientists.” 

Subcommittee Democrats expressed support for the SBE Directorate. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) called the cuts to SBE unwarranted and counter to good policy and research, citing specific examples of the vital role SBE research plays.  Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) urged subcommittee members to prioritize basic research across all disciplines, highlighting a New York Times article about Intel hiring social anthropology teams. 

During Subcommittee markup, Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) offered an amendment to strike the language providing funding at the Directorate level, an amendment that failed on a voice vote. Subsequently, Lipinski put forward an amendment to the bill that would increase funding for the SBE Directorate by $50 million. The amendment (previously agreed to) passed, restoring some funding to SBE, but leaving intact an authorization level that still cuts SBE funding by 22% from the FY 2014 level of $257 million. 

Since the introduction of the bill just a few days earlier, science advocates worked feverishly to express opposition to numerous provisions, while also offering to work with the Committee to improve the bill. Over seventy-five scientific societies and higher education organizations sent a letter to the House Science Committee expressing “serious concerns” with provisions in the bill, including overall NSF reauthorization funding levels, cuts to the SBE Directorate, and the bill’s departure from “Guiding Principles” for reauthorization that were supported by the business, higher education, scientific, and engineering communities. 

Statements opposing the bill were issued by organizations such as the Association of American Universities, American Physical Society, FABBS, and Consortiuum of Social Science Associations, among others.  These were entered into the Congressional Record during Subcommittee markup of the bill. 

And scientists got involved. Action Alerts were issued by FABBS, APA, COSSA, and other social and behavioral science societies encouraging scientists to contact their Member of Congress and urge opposition to the bill in its current form.

With a series of amendments added, the bill passed out of Subcommittee with bipartisan support and now moves to the full Committee. Yet, the bill remains troublesome, and most of the science and higher education organizations that are focused on creating a sound future for science through NSF remain opposed to the bill. Plans are developing for the next stage of the battle.