WASHINGTON — If Republicans have their way, a Harvard University anthropologist would not be using tax dollars to study the impact of China’s one-child policy. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist would not have the money to research how Medicare changes might shape seniors’ political attitudes. And a Brown University archeologist would not be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars examining textiles from the Viking Age.
This is the latest front in a GOP-led war against the federal funding of social science and other research, including the study of climate change, in an age of fiscal austerity. House Republicans are questioning millions of dollars in National Science Foundation grants awarded to researchers across the country by singling out dozens of projects for extra scrutiny.
They have recently proposed a bill — titled the “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (First) Act of 2014” — that would cut foundation spending for research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences by more than 40 percent. The bill would shift some $160 million that the federal government has allocated for the social sciences and geosciences toward Republican priorities in the physical and biological sciences, as well as engineering.
While on the surface it might seem like the usual partisan bickering, the proposal raises deeper questions about what role the government should play in funding science where the payoff is more difficult to discern than, for example, the quest for the genetic codes that could unlock the mysteries of cancer.
It also pits the interests of politicians, who control the scientific purse strings, against the judgments of the scientific community, which selects projects to fund through peer evaluations.
“We have to question spending nearly $700,000 of taxpayer dollars to fund a climate change musical or over $220,000 to study animal photos in National Geographic,” said US Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, in a statement to the Globe. “It’s the role of Congress to make sure we’re using limited federal funds for the highest priority research.”
The actions have prompted Democrats and many in the scientific community to accuse Republicans of meddling in science — a dangerous precedent, critics say, because it would allow politicians to decide what areas to prioritize based on their own partisan ideologies, over the expertise of scientists.
“For a committee that is supposed to be advancing science, we seem to be doing an awfully good job of advancing selective science,” said Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat on the same committee. “It’s been frustrating, particularly of late.”
Kennedy called the Republican bill an “opportunistic approach to defunding or attacking certain areas of science that you either don’t agree with or that you don’t want to see what the results might actually be.”
Smith’s bill, up for a committee vote soon, would require the National Science Foundation to publicly justify why each grant it awards meets the national interest.
The bill would give Congress authority to decide how to divide the pool of grant money the foundation awards, instead of allowing the agency to determine how much to allot toward each field of science.
This House effort follows a budget amendment by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma last year to temporarily restrict the funding of political science research to projects that promote US national security or economic development. The amendment was adopted, leading the foundation to cancel a round of political science grant competitions.
In recent weeks, Democrats were able to amend the new House bill and boost social science funding by $50 million to a total of $200 million – but that figure is still 26 percent less than the $272 million for the social sciences that President Obama and the NSF have requested for 2015.
Obama’s proposed budget for social science research accounts for far less than 1 percent of the agency’s $5.8 billion total research funding, a “very, very modest proportion,” said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, at a recent House Science Committee hearing on science agency budgets.
“Some of the funny-sounding titles, when you look into them, do make a lot of sense,” said Holdren, an environmental policy and earth and planetary science professor at Harvard. “I just don’t feel that most people in this room are well qualified to second-guess NSF’s superb peer review committees.”
Social science research helps the nation understand poverty, control the spread of infectious diseases, reduce human trafficking, understand the conduct of other nations and the effectiveness of sanctions, and optimize disaster response, among other benefits, Holdren said.
“This is an attempt to politicize the grant-making process instead of leaving it up to the experts,” said Wendy Naus, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations in Washington. “Even for the scientific disciplines that would actually see an increase at the expense of social sciences, it’s a slippery slope. It may work out for them this year, but in future years, who’s to say?”
Already Republicans have raised concerns about the merits of some biological research, including a $385,000 study by Yale University ornithologists on the sexual behavior of ducks, which landed on a House science committee spreadsheet of nearly 100 questionable projects.
Patricia Brennan, an evolutionary biologist at University of Massachusetts Amherst who had been awarded the grant to study sexual conflict in ducks when she was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, said basic research like hers is easy to poke fun at because it does not have clear real-world applicability.
“A lot of the research we fund has to do with topics that may not be immediately apparent why it’s important to human beings,” but it can prove to be, said Brennan.
Brennan and other scientists from around the country descended upon Washington last week to talk with lawmakers about the importance of NSF funding for basic research.
Michelle McKinley, a law professor at the University of Oregon, said she almost fell off her chair when she discovered in March that House Republicans had been citing her $50,000 grant to study lawsuits in Peru between 1600 and 1700 as an example of waste. McKinley said her research was funded only after surviving two rounds of rigorous reviews by other social scientists. She uses historical records to study the institution of slavery to answer questions about social justice and inequality — work she defends as valuable “even if it’s not going to give us clean energy.”
“It doesn’t usually have great results for the production of knowledge when Congress starts questioning why certain things are receiving funding,” McKinley said.
Coburn, an obstetrician who is retiring from Congress in December, has for years tried to eliminate funding for political science research, and he targeted social science in his annual “Wastebook.” Coburn has gone a step further than House Republicans, proposing the elimination of funding altogether for social, behavioral, and economic research within the National Science Foundation to save the nation about $255 million a year.
“Rather than ramping up the amount spent on political science and other social and behavioral research, NSF’s mission should be redirected toward truly transformative sciences with practical uses,” Coburn wrote in a scathing 2011 review of the National Science Foundation.
One of Coburn’s targets has been research on how members of Congress engage their constituents, conducted by David Lazer, a professor of political science and computer and information sciences at Northeastern University. In 2009, Coburn accused the NSF of wasting tax dollars on helping “members of Congress improve their dismal approval ratings” instead of using the money for cancer and other disease research.
“Coburn was the opening wedge of the attack on the more general social sciences, science that may be producing conclusions that are disliked by particular political players today,” Lazer said.
“The hope is that academia can help speak truth to power, but that doesn’t work when the powerful turn the lights out on those academics.”