Government Relations Update

First in a 2011 series: New congressional attacks on behavioral science

House Science subcommittee holds hearing on NSF’s SBE Directorate.

By Heather O'Beirne Kelly

The last month has seen renewed attacks on Capitol Hill on the legitimacy of the social, behavioral and economic (SBE) sciences and federal support for research in these disciplines.  The schedule to move appropriations bills this summer through the House of Representatives brings opportunities for further legislative attempts to reduce or eliminate SBE programs across federal agencies and to de-fund peer-reviewed individual research grants.

On May 26, Sen. Tom Coburn, MD (R-OK) released a report compiled in his personal office titled “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope.”  The report detailed Sen. Coburn’s concerns about National Science Foundation (NSF) management activities, singled out over 60 NSF peer-reviewed grants as supposedly silly and a waste of federal funds, and called for elimination of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences at NSF.  In June, Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT), Chairman of the House Subcommittee that provides funding to the National Institutes of Health, unsuccessfully attempted to add statutory language to a bill which would have limited the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to consider social and behavioral science as “scientific evidence” in its tobacco control regulatory activities.  Rehberg also made comments in the media negatively comparing psychologists to psychiatrists in terms of their scientific credibility. 

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education provided another public opportunity for Members of Congress and outside panelists to cast doubt on the value of SBE sciences.  The Subcommittee held an oversight hearing on June 2 on NSF’s SBE portfolio.  Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) opened the hearing by saying that he was “particularly interested in understanding the NSF investment in these sciences, including the amounts asked for in the FY12 budget request and how those priorities were made. In an effort to be responsive to the American taxpayer, Congress needs to ensure that all federal funding decisions are wise and produce significant value for the Nation.” 

Brooks went on to characterize SBE disciplines as “the ‘soft’ sciences to distinguish them from the physical and life sciences,” and he noted: “The goal of this hearing is not to question whether the social, behavioral, and economic sciences produce interesting and sound research, as I believe we all can agree that they do. I come from a social science background. I have a degree in political science and economics. Rather, the goal of our hearing is to lookAPA Member and hearing witness Hillary Anger Elfenbein, Phd with Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) at the need for federal investments in these disciplines, how we determine what those needs are in the context of national priorities, and how we prioritize funding for those needs, not only within the social science disciplines, but also within all science disciplines, particularly when federal research dollars are scarce.”

Four witnesses were invited to testify at the hearing:  Myron Gutmann, PhD, Assistant Director of NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE); Hillary Anger Elfenbein, PhD, psychologist and associate professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis; Peter Wood, PhD, anthropologist and President of the National Association of Scholars; and Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor in President George W. Bush’s administration.

In his testimony, Gutmann described NSF’s SBE research portfolio and highlighted NSF-funded basic research that has led to important progress in a number of domains related to economic and physical safety, national security, healthcare, and education. He pointed out that this basic research is often leveraged by more mission-oriented federal agencies and that the federal government plays a vital role in supporting research that is not of interest to corporate or foundation sponsors that have more limited and proprietary interests.  Elfenbein, who reached out to other behavioral scientists and met with the American Psychological Association’s Science Government Relations staff to prepare for her testimony, spoke from the viewpoint of an individual scientist whose NSF-funded research has been singled out for de-funding (unsuccessfully) in the past by Members of Congress on the basis of grant titles and what Elfenbein called “political review over peer review.” 

In contrast, Furchtgott-Roth strongly dismissed any need for federal investment in the SBE sciences and declared that NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate should be eliminated immediately.  She maintained that any important research in these disciplines would be funded through private sector “industry, law firms and private foundations.”  Woods stopped short of calling for the Directorate’s elimination and instead provided his own specific suggestions for “triage.” He proposed targeted cuts to and elimination of NSF programs in areas he claimed have been too closely tied to policymaking and “infected by post-modern ideologies,” including any related to sustainability, women and minorities, and dissertation support.
Members of the Subcommittee were given time to question the witnesses.  From the Democratic minority, Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL), a social scientist himself and former Chairman, described the Subcommittee’s prior record in focusing on the critical role of SBE sciences in areas as far-ranging as national security, health, and disaster response.  Other Democrats on the Subcommittee expressed concerns about political attacks on individual scientists sending “a chilling message” to students considering scientific careers and emphasized the vital role of SBE research in understanding the human dimension in national challenges.  New freshmen Republican members Andy Harris (R-MD) and Dan Benishek (R-MI), who are both physicians, expressed strong concerns about NSF’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grants and highlighted peer-reviewed NSF-funded projects they considered “a waste of money,” often using examples first published by Sen. Coburn in his recent report.
A report on the hearing by journalist Jeffrey Mervis was published on-line by Science magazine on June 3.  Despite Chairman Brooks’ relatively measured remarks during the actual hearing, his on-the-record answers to Mervis’ questions are deeply troubling to the SBE science community.  When asked whether he supports calls to eliminate the NSF Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate, Brooks responded: “No, I have no predisposition on which direction to head.  But if I had to prioritize, I think that basic science generates more economic activity, which in turn helps support all the other things we want government to do, than do the social sciences.”  In a follow up question from Mervis about whether Brooks thinks that the “SBE [Directorate] is not funding the same kind of basic science that the rest of NSF funds,” Brooks answered: “I don’t know what you mean by the rest of NSF. But with respect to the hard sciences, I have a priority with respect to them.”  Pressed to define what he meant by “the hard sciences,” Brooks said: “Physics, math, materials development, and, although this may be outside NSF’s portfolio, advances in health care.  That’s hard science to me.  And you can see more tangible results there.  So the social sciences have a greater burden of proof.”

APA staff and colleagues from the Consortium of Social Science Associations met with Chairman Brooks personally on June 21 to express dismay that in his role as steward of federal support for the scientific enterprise, he had resurrected the untenable distinction between “hard” and “soft” sciences and suggested that social and behavioral sciences do not include "basic science."  A follow up letter was sent to Chairman Brooks and continued meetings with him and his staff are planned as part of the ongoing, multi-pronged approach to the attack within the current Congress on SBE sciences.  This effort includes activating grassroots advocacy by the scientific community, leveraging support from other scientific and academic organizations and coalitions, capitalizing on media opportunities, monitoring legislation, and working to prevent and remove damaging bill language and amendments.

Heather O’Beirne Kelly, PhD, is Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer in the APA Science Government Relations Office.  She advocates for psychological research at the National Science Foundation.