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Threats to Geography and Social Science Funding

In recent months, various threats to geography and social science research funding have arisen as the result of Congressional actions. This page details the most-serious threats and suggests ways in which AAG members can engage on these critical issues.

House Legislation Would Undermine NSF Merit Review Process

A bill (H.R. 3293) just introduced by the chair of the U.S. House Science Committee would undermine the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) longstanding use of merit review for awarding grants. The Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) and several other organizations have expressed their opposition.

The legislation, which is similar to other bills that the AAG has alerted the geography community about, is portrayed by the Science Committee as helping to weed out grants that are unworthy of federal support. The Committee also asserts that nothing in the bill “shall be construed as altering the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications.”

The legislation would require NSF program officers to produce written justification for each project that receives funding that the grant is “worthy of federal funding” and is in the national interest in at least one of the seven following categories:

  • increased economic competitiveness in the United States;
  • advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;
  • development of an American STEM workforce that is globally competitive;
  • increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the United States;
  • increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States;
  • support for the national defense of the United States; or
  • promotion of the progress of science for the United States.

Requiring these justification statements could ultimately force the Foundation’s program officials, including those at the Geography and Spatial Science program, to have to testify publicly in defense of merit review decisions, which are currently handled through a confidential process.

We will monitor this legislation and report on any important developments.

Read the COSSA statement opposing H.R. 3293

Chairman Smith Attacks Individual NSF Grants - AAG Responds

Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has been reviewing indivdual grants awarded by NSF through the merit-review process in an effort to undermine the value of some research funded by the Foundation.  Some of the grants that Chairman Smith has questioned were funded through the agency's Geography and Spatial Sciences (GSS) program.  

On October 7, 2014, AAG Executive Director Doug Richardson sent a letter to the Chairman that praises the value of GSS-funded research and asserts that Smith's action "undermines our nation's scientific endeavor and makes young Americans reticent to pursue careers in critical STEM fields."  

FIRST Act would Dramatically Cut Social Science Funding at NSF

In June 2014, we sent a message to AAG members about the FIRST (Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology) Act (H.R. 4186) - a House bill that would impose new caps on National Science Foundation (NSF) research directorates and would severly limit funding available to the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) science directorate.  The NSF's Geography and Spatial Sciences program is part of SBE.   

Coburn Amendment and Political Science Funding

The omnibus appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2014 that was signed into law by President Obama on January 17, 2014 was widely hailed as a rare departure from the recent cycle of federal budget battles. The legislation received significant bipartisan support in both houses of Congress and headed off any chance of a government shutdown until at least October.

Significantly for geographers and the wider social science community, the bill does not contain the so-called "Coburn Amendment," which passed in March 2013 and prevented the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding political science studies other than research "certified as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States." Enactment of the Coburn Amendment prompted the AAG to work with our friends at the American Political Science Association (APSA) and many others in the science and higher education communities to promote the importance of political and social science research, and urge Congress to undo the restrictions.

Over the last several months, we at the AAG have worked closely with the APSA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF), and many other key organizations in an effort to undo the damage caused by the Coburn Amendment and to prevent the possibility of wider-reaching restrictions blocking funding for the social sciences broadly. As part of these efforts, the AAG has:

  • Adopted an AAG Council resolution opposing the Coburn Amendment
  • Sent multiple calls to action to all AAG members detailing concerns related to sequestration and issues such as the Coburn Amendment
  • Coordinated closely with the APSA agenda, per their request, in our response to the Coburn Amendment
  • Signed onto numerous letters, including a AAAS-organized letter urging the House Science Committee to protect the integrity of the merit-review process for all disciplines, including the social and behavioral sciences; and a CNSF-organized letter urging the House Science Committee to fully fund programs that support social science research

While we are delighted that the recently-passed omnibus spending bill does not contain the Coburn Amendment or any related restrictions on the social and behavioral sciences, we recognize that we must remain vigilant to protect this funding in the coming months. 

AAG & APSA Coordination

The American Political Science Association and the AAG have long been coordinating closely on threats to social science funding, and on responding to the Coburn Amendment. See the Letter from APSA thanking thanking us for our engagement on these matters and suggesting ways that AAG members can assist in the response to the threats to federal funding for political science research.

AAG President Eric Sheppard Highlights AAG Activities on Coburn Amendment

AAG President Eric Sheppard recently shared an important message with the Association's membership detailing the AAG response to the Coburn Amendment.  The message was posted on the AAG website and through the Association's social media pages and was shared broadly.

AAG Resolution on Coburn Amendment

As part of their recent meeting in concert with the 2013 AAG Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, the AAG Council adopted a resolution opposing the Coburn Amendment and expressing solidarity with our friends at APSA.  

Continuing Threats to Social Science Funding

Please see this recent article from COSSA Washington Update, the biweekly newsletter of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, that details ongoing threats to social science research funding at NSF and the latest developments around the Coburn Amendment. The AAG is a founding member of COSSA and AAG Executive Director Doug Richardson is a member of the COSSA Board of Directors and also serves on COSSA’s Executive Committee.

Sequestration: AAG Response

In February 2013, the AAG sent a message informing all members about the federal budget action known as sequestration, which is limiting funding to most federal programs, including scientific research accounts and urging AAG members to express their views on this issue to policymakers.  We sent a second message to the membership in September 2013 to follow up on this critical topic.

How AAG Members Can Help

Contact Your Congressional Representative

We always encourage AAG members to contact your members of Congress on issues of importance to you to express your views on these issues.

A listing of U.S. Senators can be found at:

And you can locate your U.S. Representative at:

Public Outreach and Education

Separately, we encourage AAG members to write op-eds or letters to the editor in their local or in national newspapers and other publications. And we also urge you to work within your community to emphasize the importance of research in and funding for geography and the sciences broadly, including the social science disciplines. We encourage members to relate why geography research and the geographic aspects of social science research are critical to the public.