Executive Director's Column

Red Alert

The effort to drive social and behavioral science out of the federal funding portfolio will continue, and we need to marshal our resources in response.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Just a few months ago (February), I used this space to comment on the President's newly proposed American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). Aimed at increasing investments in basic physical science and engineering research, this initiative would include a doubling of the National Science Foundation (NSF) budget over the next 10 years.

I am completely in favor of doubling the NSF budget - doing it over 10 years may not be fast enough. The greatest threats and challenges we face as human beings and as a nation require an increasing investment in basic science.

The concern I expressed in February was that growth for some areas of science (math, physical science, engineering, technology) should not come at the expense of other areas, especially the biological, social and behavioral sciences.

I heard from a number of readers about this. Some called me cynical, others paranoid. They wondered why I was being critical of an initiative that could be good for many fields of science, and good for America.

At the time, I was merely expressing a healthy dose of skepticism. For those who are fond of color-coded alert systems, I was suggesting that we move from Blue Alert (our usual guarded level of threat) to Yellow Alert (an elevated level of threat). Not that any dramatic action was needed, only that we needed a little extra vigilance. A remote threat could be detected on the horizon.

The situation changed on May 2, when the Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Science and Space held a hearing on "NSF's Fiscal Year 2007 budget request, research priorities, current plans and activities, and its support for the American Competitiveness Initiative and related activities." Presiding over the hearing was Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX).

It was clear from the outset that some members of the subcommittee do not want NSF to use any increase in its budget for the support of social or behavioral science. Some even questioned whether NSF should be supporting social and behavioral science at all. ORANGE ALERT! This kind of talk is good reason for us to consider ourselves as moving to a high level of threat.

Those of us who spend our days here in Washington advocating on behalf of social and behavioral science were concerned. We began to mobilize our troops, ready to take action if needed.

Then on May 16, word spread rapidly that Senator Hutchison was planning to introduce an amendment to Senate Bill 2802, which lays the groundwork for the ACI. The amendment would instruct NSF not only to assess the degree to which grant proposals contribute to the enhancement of physical science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but also to give priority to them.

RED ALERT! We suddenly moved to a severe level of threat. Although the anticipated amendment does not say so directly, its language and intent is clear: when it comes to funding the American Competitiveness Initiative, NSF should not be directing any dollars to social and behavioral science research.

Why is this a threat? For one thing, new initiatives are rarely fully funded. To deliver on their promise often requires the redirection of other funding. In this case, the stage is being set to redirect funding of social and behavioral science to other fields of science. This is precisely the concern I expressed in February.

The larger concern, however, is the threat this represents for the entire enterprise of social and behavioral science. It is clear that some lawmakers hold our areas of science in great disdain. Some would like to see the social and behavioral science programs of NSF removed entirely from its portfolio. Other than its general interest value, they fail to appreciate the importance of and need for basic research in social and behavioral science.

On May 17, APA and our partner organizations issued an action alert - a call to action for psychologists and others to speak up, and to let their representatives know how they feel about these legislative actions. By all accounts, the field responded.

On May 18, word spread that a compromise had been worked out in the Senate - that Senator Hutchison's amendment would not be offered after all, but that she and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) had crafted a different amendment. This new amendment would clarify that in giving priority to some fields of science, no bias or restrictions be placed on any other fields of science that fall within the agency's mission.

As I write this, we do not yet know the final outcome of any of this legislation. Let's consider ourselves fairly warned. The effort to drive social and behavioral science out of the federal funding portfolio will continue, and we need to marshal our resources in response.