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Obama Defends Social Science Research; Obama Administration Appointments

May 13, 2013

Obama Defends Social Science Research and Peer Review Process

On April 29, amidst the fallout from Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) amendment that restricted funding for political science research funding at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a series of related squabbles, President Obama used the occasion of remarks commemorating the 150th anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences to defend the social sciences and the peer review process. 

The President asserted, “(O)ne of the things that I've tried to do over these last four years and will continue to do over the next four years is to make sure that we are promoting the integrity of our scientific process; that not just in the physical and life sciences, but also in fields like psychology and anthropology and economics and political science – all of which are sciences because scholars develop and test hypotheses and subject them to peer review – but in all the sciences, we’ve got to make sure that we are supporting the idea that they’re not subject to politics, that they’re not skewed by an agenda, that, as I said before, we make sure that we go where the evidence leads us.  And that’s why we’ve got to keep investing in these sciences.”

Coburn’s amendment, which was incorporated as part of the massive appropriations bill that is funding the government for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013, specifies that the Foundation may only fund political science research projects that the NSF Director “certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”  The amendment was condemned in a resolution passed recently by the AAG Council and has also been harshly criticized by many of our fellow scientific groups and others in the policymaking community and beyond. 

A related controversy broke out when House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) released a draft bill that would apply more extensive criteria to all research funded by the Foundation.  Under the proposal, entitled the “High Quality Research Act,” when making an award of any grant or contract, the NSF Director would have to certify that the project is:

  • In the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
  • The finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
  • Not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies. 

Smith also sent a letter to Acting NSF Director Cora Marrett asking for detailed information on five grants that he asserted might not adhere to the agency’s “intellectual merit” guideline.  All five of the projects were funded through the Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences and one of the grants, “Comparative Network Analysis:  Mapping Global Social Interactions,” was funded in part by the Geography and Spatial Sciences Program. 

Smith’s actions have been sharply criticized as an attack on the peer review process and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the Ranking Democrat on the Science panel, sent a hard-hitting letter to Smith that said, in part:

Your letter… to Dr. Marrett has provoked me to write to you... (Y)our letter marks the beginning of an investigative effort, the implications of which are profound.  This is the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely viewed as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world…  (F)or decades the world has held the NSF’s peer review process as the gold standard for how scientific proposals should be judged and funded.  This applies equally to all fields of science, including the social and behavioral sciences…  I ask that you withdraw your letter to Dr. Marrett.         

Without a doubt, these issues will continue to be part of a significant debate over federal funding for scientific research throughout 2013.  Please take a moment to view a new page on the AAG website devoted to this topic, the Association’s response, and information on how you can get involved:

Obama Appointments:  Jewell Confirmed for Interior; Pritzker Tapped for Commerce; EPA Pick May be Blocked

As the President has filled out his second-term Cabinet, several nominations of interest to the geography community have been in the news:

Sally Jewell has been confirmed as Secretary of the Interior by a vote of 87-11 in the Senate.  In her new role, Jewell oversees several agencies of interest to geographers, including the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service. 

The President has nominated Penny Pritzker to serve as Secretary of Commerce.  If confirmed, she will head a department that includes the Census Bureau and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.  Pritzker is a business executive and philanthropist and part of the family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain.  She is close friends with President Obama and raised substantial funds for his 2008 campaign.  The Commerce job has been held in an acting capacity by Rebecca Blank since June 11, 2012.  Former Secretary John Bryson resigned last year because of personal health issues. 

Meanwhile, Gina McCarthy, the President’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been denied a vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee because of a Republican boycott.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicated that the boycott was undertaken because the administration has refused to answer Republican questions about the data underlying certain EPA regulations.   Even if McCarthy’s nomination is approved by the panel, she could still face a filibuster on the Senate floor. 

For more background on Jewell and McCarthy, please see the March 7, 2013, edition of the Washington Monitor.

John Wertman 



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