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Education Researchers Wary as Senate Takes Up NSF Funding

Late yesterday the full Senate began floor debate on a "minibus" of fiscal 2015 spending, including appropriations for research under the National Science Foundation, and social science researchers are bracing this morning for amendments to cut off or restrict funding for political and social science research, including education studies.

The Senate version of the appropriations provides $51.2 billion for commerce, justice, science, and related agencies in fiscal 2015, nearly $400 million less than the fiscal 2014 appropriation. Of that, the National Science Foundation would receive $26 billion, a little more than 1 percent more than in fiscal 2014, with $5.8 billion for research activities, and nearly $890 million for the Education and Human Resources Directorate, which also supports education and other social science research.

"As such things go, it's generous with regard to the appropriation level, but the social and behavioral science issues are of great concern," said Gerald Sroufe, the government relations director for the American Educational Research Association. "The problem with the Senate is that one person can do a lot, and there have been some members of the Senate who have been very difficult to deal with on social sciences, and some of our champions who had been there a long time have moved on."

Last year, language in a continuing budget resolution required the NSF to fund only political science research that advances "national security or the economic interests of the United States."

And the House's passage of NSF appropriations late last month left many social and political science researchers gun shy. The House debate on the appropriations sparked several attempts by conservative lawmakers to limit funding or change NSF's peer review process to restrict social sciences. On the floor, former Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia criticized political and social science spending and supported flat funding NSF's social, behavioral, and economic sciences directorate at fiscal 2014 levels. More specifically, Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Goser offered a failed amendment that would have restricted specific research in 14 areas, including studying online gaming. 

In every budget cycle, at least a few members of Congress point to specific research titles or topics that they find inappropriate.  "Our traditional response has been to sing the praises of peer review, and that's a legitimate response, but it doesn't get at Congress' concerns" that the entire fields of social, political, and behavioral sciences may be a lower priority than physics or engineering, Sroufe said.

"However, with the change in Congress and the emergence of people who are nonscientific or anti-scientific, [the budget process] becomes more daunting each year," Sroufe said. "Used to be, when you went to the House Science committee for a hearing. it was like going into a university classroom; from the chairman on down everyone was keenly interested in the science involved. When you go in now, it's sometimes hard to tell you are talking about science at all, because the level of discourse is often reduced to just the funding amount and the title" of a study or research topic, he said.

There's still room for optimism, though. After all the debate, on May 30, the full House voted 331-87 to approve a spending bill for commerce, justice, and science that AERA noted did "less than feared" and generally left social science research programs intact.

The Senate did not add any amendments in subcommittee or committee that would affect social sciences, but AERA, the Consortium of Social Science Organizations, and other advocacy groups were taking no chances last week, urging members to call and write senators asking them to resist floor amendments that would hamper social sciences. Debate has barely started on the Senate floor.

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