From the Ramparts
Since then matters have evolved considerably. The ASA was nice enough to post an update on the situation that most of us will find pretty reassuring. It reads as follows:
Latest update: 5/18/06, 11:20am - Prior to full committee markup (scheduled for later this afternoon) of S. 2802, Sen. Hutchison and Sen. Lautenberg agreed to compromise language in the bill that restores a rightful place for behavioral and social sciences within NSF's portfolio. The science community can hold calls to Senators now (see background below).
This is, of course, good news. More recently however, alert reader Tina was nice enough to forward along an analysis of the situation written by someone who is in a position to have a pretty good handle on things. It provides more detail on what has happened, and what is going to happen, and so I think it worth discussing. Now, this message was sent out semi-publicly and I won't attribute it to anyone in particular so I feel pretty okay about posting it, but I will remove it if the author requests.
The compromise language in the bill allows NSF to continue to fund what it has been funding all along, and that will be what happens because NSF's charter mandates that course. I have not investigated the following yet, but I suspect there is federal code that would prevent the rescinding of grants without involvement of the federal courts. The key text that protects sociology in the Section 307 compromise are the following two phrases:
(b) PRIORITY TREATMENT. Proposed research activities, and grants funded under the Foundation's Research and Related Activities Account, which can be expected to make contributions in physical and natural sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and other research that underpins these areas, or that enhances competitiveness or innovation in the United States, shall be given priority in the selection of awards and in the allocation of Foundation resources.
(c) APPLICATION OF PRIORITY TREATMENT TO OTHER PROGRAMS. This requirement shall be applied to other fellowship, grant or award programs authorized in this title.
(d) LIMITATION. Nothing in this section shall be construed to restrict or bias the grant selection process against funding other areas of research deemed by the Foundation to be consistent with its mandate, nor to change the core mission of the Foundation.
There is no guarantee that Hutchison won't try to cause some trouble during the FY 2007 appropriations negotiations process between now and the fall, but it seems unlikely for various reasons: (1) She has now suffered a defeat relative to her interest in getting some (not all) social science out of NSF; (2) She likely would want to spend her limited political capital and time trying to do something positive like getting increased funding for NASA, which is under the same committee's jurisdiction; (3) An omnibus funding bill, which won't allow opportunity for negotiating over single grants, is the likely route Congress will be forced to take this year (like last year) and it will be a highly contentious process; (It's probable that numerous Continuing Resolutions will be needed to keep the federal govt hobbling along till that massive funding bill is passed late in the year); and (4) Hutchison was apparently standing alone in her pursuit to change NSF's mission to omit the social and behavioral sciences.
So, based on this we have limited cause for optimism. On the one hand, our protection right now is primarily political expediency, which isn't terribly reliable. On the other hand, it looks like this effort wasn't broadly popular to begin with. That said, I still think that we should take a real lesson from this about the need to present a case for Sociology. I doubt many politicians would have been so eager to challenge, say, physics in quite this way. Certainly Congress decided not to fund the SSC but there have been no moves to eliminate basic physical science. Biology has been having a harder time, fending off the inanity of intelligent design, as well as trying to convince the religious right that "stem cells are good," but for the most part biomedical research is riding high in the saddle. What both these sciences have that we often lack is a public appreciation of their worth.
I'm not saying we all need to become showmen, and I'm not even saying we need to leave the ivory tower, but can we at least try communicating with those outside of it? The result, I think, will be worth the cost.