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July 30, 2013 11:11 AM How Goes the House GOP’s War on Political Science?

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor

There are a number of moving legislative targets that relate to federal funding of social science research. In this post, I summarize these legislative targets and the latest happenings related to each.

Target #1: Appropriations Funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF)

The so-called “Coburn Amendment” that restricted NSF funding for political science in spring of 2013 was enacted through a continuing resolution, or “CR.” Congress uses CR’s to fund the federal government when it has not been able to pass appropriations bills. Usually, a CR is a stop-gap measure that temporarily funds the government until Congress can work out its differences and pass appropriations, but for the last few funding cycles, a CR is the only thing Congress has been able to pass. All eyes are now on the appropriations process for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014. Will it include restrictions to political science again? Answers are starting to come.

Senate

The Senate Appropriations Committee recently voted on a funding bill that includes NSF. NSF funding is a part of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill (S.1329). In the Senate, the bill is governed bySenator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of Appropriations and the relevant subcommittee. The Senate’s bill includes $6 billion of funding for scientific research and no language that restricts NSF authority or funding criteria. The bill was voted on in the full committee on July 18, 2013 (S. Rept. 113-78—link is to NSF section only). The NSF section of the bill includes $7.4 billion of funding, which is $1.9 billion more than the FY 2013 funding levels, but $200 million less than the President’s request.

House

The House version comes from an appropriations subcommittee chaired byFrank Wolf (R-VA) (H. 2787). The full committee marked-up and voted on the bill on July 17, 2013 (H. Rept. 113-171). The final bill includes $7 billion of funding for NSF, which is $630 million less than the President’s request, but $111 million more than was enacted in FY 2013 spending. During the House Appropriations Committee mark-up hearing, Rep. David Price (D-NC), a political scientist, introduced an amendment that would restore NSF funding to the President’s requested level, rather than the reduced levels the committee was considering. Rep. James Moran (D-VA) provided vigorous support for this effort; however, the committee voted the amendment down, perhaps in part because the suggested increase was not funded (COSSA). There is no “Coburn”-like language in this funding bill. If this bill were to pass, the current restrictions on NSF with respect to political science would be lifted; however, the bill does include the following instructions to NSF:

NSF needs to improve its ability to articulate the value and scientific merit of its research grants and explain the peer review process that results in research funding decisions. No later than 90 days after the enactment of this Act, NSF shall report to the Committee on steps it is taking to better explain and communicate the impact and relevance of its research grants, both collectively and individually.

Next Steps

These funding bills have to come to the floor of their respective chambers and no one knows when that might happen. Here are some possibilities:

  • House and Senate chambers will vote on these bills in September or October 2013.
  • Bills could be amended on the floor and restrictive language could still be introduced at this stage. 
  • In the Senate, floor amendments of this type typically require a 60-vote margin to pass; although, recall that when the current restriction was put into place in spring 2013 it was done on a voice vote—meaning a deal had been negotiated to accept the amendment before it came to the floor. 
  • The CJS Appropriations bills will get rolled into an omnibus spending bill that will get voted on later this fall. Same caveats apply as those stated above for a stand-alone spending bill. 
  • If Congress fails to pass appropriations bills (as has been typical of recent congresses) it might choose to fund the government with another CR. If that happened the current political science restrictions at NSF would continue, for as long as the CR funds NSF.

Target #2: High Quality Research Act

This is an original legislative effort, spearheaded by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). This legislation has not yet been introduced, but it has been suggested that it would significantly restrict the types of projects that NSF could fund and the funding criteria (draft language here). It is sweeping legislation that would affect all sciences. Rep. Smith is the chair of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee, which oversees NSF and other scientific entities of government (e.g., NASA, National Weather Service, etc.). A coalition lettersigned by 111 academic, professional, and scientific organizations has been sent to the chairman expressing concerns over changes in the merit review process.

Target #3: The America COMPETES Re-authorization Act

This legislation is the authorizing legislation for NSF (for more on authorization versus appropriations see here). NSF is due to be re-authorized in 2013, but to date no legislation has been introduced. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has made statements that expresses his concerns about continued federal funding for social sciences. Some advocates have expressed concern that the authorizing legislation could eliminate or severely restrict the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE) at NSF.

The following resources provide further summaries, updates, and suggested actions that advocates can take regarding these issues:

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]