Social and Behavioral Sciences Survive Cut in House Spending Bill, But Cut 42% in NSF Reauthorization Plan

June 4, 2014

by Paula Skedsvold

There was a flurry of activity last week on two major bills addressing science. On the House floor, Members debated the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations bill that funds the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

Under the leadership of Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the bill was crafted with bipartisan support, and had the endorsement of numerous scientific, higher education, and business organizations as it moved to the House floor. 

The CJS bill, as passed by House Appropriations Committee, provided a modest boost in funding for NSF programs of 3.3% over FY 2014 estimates and a 2.1% increase over the President’s budget request.  The Coalition for National Science Funding and the Task Force on American Innovation applauded the bipartisan spirit that led to the increase in funding as a step forward in reducing the “innovation deficit.”

Science and higher education advocates, however, were concerned that amendments on the House floor could reduce overall NSF funding or target areas of science. Indeed, the FY 2013 spending bill included an amendment that put restrictions on political science research at NSF. In addition, House leaders had sought to “prioritize” and shift NSF funding from social and behavioral sciences to the physical sciences. 

There was more reason for concern. On the same evening that the CJS Appropriations bill reached the House floor, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee completed its markup of Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST), a bill to reauthorize NSF programs. With the support of Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), an amendment was offered by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) during Committee consideration of the bill to cut funding for the NSF Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate by $50 million. 

The original FIRST bill cut SBE funding by $100 million or 42%. In Subcommittee markup, Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) got $50 million restored to SBE, only to have it removed again at the full Committee level. The science and higher education communities have expressed serious concerns with the bill, due to overall funding levels for NSF; cuts to the SBE and Geosciences Directorates; and measures that put conditions on review of grant proposals, among others.

Back on the House floor for debate on the CJS bill, and with massive cuts to the NSF SBE Directorate tucked into in the reauthorization bill, Majority Leader Eric Cantor described his appreciation for Rep. Lamar Smith’s efforts to “reform NSF,” explaining that he was troubled by the Administration’s spending on political and social science. In response, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) argued that it was “unwise” and “misguided” for Congress to substitute political judgment for a “world-renowned” merit review process.

The following day, Rep. Lamar Smith offered his amendment to the CJS bill. It removed $15 million from NSF’s research account and then restored the full amount. By offering the amendment, Rep. Smith could use the floor time to criticize NSF for “dozens or hundreds of questionable grants.”  Although Rep. Smith explained in his floor statement that the intention of his amendment was to redirect any increase in SBE funding to the physical sciences, the text of the amendment was narrow and did not include reference to any areas of science. In the end, there was no net effect on social and behavioral sciences in the CJS bill, but Rep. Smith made clear that his amendment “is only the first step.” 

Again, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) provided a strong and spirited response to criticisms of NSF research.  Fattah described how the social and behavioral sciences help us understand the behavior of people in disasters; PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which affects our returning soldiers and traumatized children; and how a paralyzed monkey was taught to move her arms through her thoughts. “Eliminating the science here would be disastrous,” he said.  

Like Smith, Rep. Paul Goser (R-AZ) questioned the use of federal funds for various research projects and introduced an amendment to ban NSF funding of them. “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to study…”

  • The social effects of online interactive games;
  • How humans react to trends in popular culture;
  • Any facet of professional or collegiate sports, their games, or their playoff systems;
  • Whether or not humans are more or less racially-focused when seeking love online; or, 
  • Whether or not any social media application is able to predict trends in the stock market or any global trading market.

The amendment addressed 14 different areas of research (including those mentioned above), but was ruled “out of order.” However, introducing the amendment gave Goser an opportunity to highlight grants that he thought were of questionable scientific merit.

Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) sought to reduce funding in non-research accounts for “silly things” that NSF has funded such as climate change media games, but this amendment failed on a voice vote. One amendment that passed and has implications for the social sciences was offered by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX). Poe’s amendment made participation in the American Community Survey voluntary. The survey generates data to help in allocating $400 billion in federal and state funds to communities each year.

Other champions of NSF responded to the criticisms. Retiring physicist, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), stated: “People value the fruits of research, but have no clue how it's done.”  Noting that social and behavioral sciences research is important in understanding how people make decisions about energy use, respond to disasters, or how the brain works, he said that the idea of cutting back on this research is “terribly misguided.“

Rep. David Price (D-NC) strongly opposed the Broun amendment and offered that he wished his colleagues would spend more time learning about the grants that they questioned than trying to level “cheap shots” at them. Price applauded NSF for funding many Nobel prize winners, including SBE-funded scientists, and added: “SBE taps the best minds in the country.”  (See video of Rep. Price’s remarks)

In advance of the Committee and full House debates on these bills, FABBS and colleagues across the sciences spent considerable time on Capitol Hill raising awareness about the importance of the social and behavioral sciences. Many scientists also weighed in with their elected officials using the FABBS Action Alert.

The CJS bill passed the House, and funding for NSF in FY 2015 has now moved to the Senate, where amendments are also possible. On the House side, however, is the FIRST bill, which cuts authorized funding for SBE substantially, and could be debated by the full chamber any day.