Connecting with the Community: Wendy Naus on advocating for basic research

By, Michael Todd, Social Sciences Communications Manager, Business Development, SAGE

Wendy Naus is the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, a Washington, D.C.-based umbrella organization of other professional, scientific, academic and institutional organizations.  SAGE, as an independent company that genuinely believes in the value of basic research, works alongside COSSA and a handful of other umbrella groups in the US and Britain to protect and enhance funding and recognition for social and behavioral science.

In the last few years these partnerships have moved front and center in the United States, where efforts to gut traditional levels of social and behavioral science funding have become routine in appropriation and authorization bills for the National Science Foundation. While social science has always taken a few lumps, Wendy says, “The emergence of this as a partisan issue in the United States is largely uncharted territory for the science community, especially since agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have been favorites of Congress.” The stated purpose of these attacks is in service of cutting waste, and yet given the potentially enormous eventual pay off from basic research, and that all of the government’s social science spending is small relative to all federal research funding and puny compared to the overall federal budget, these moves are “disingenuous” at best.

Wendy took some time out to talk to us about COSSA and fighting the good fight.

CSFlynn_20150309_D700_5209_HRQ: Might you briefly describe what COSSA is and why it’s important to have an organization of organizations?

COSSA is an umbrella organization representing the broader social and behavioral science community. We were formed in the early ‘80s for the discrete purpose of addressing Reagan administration cuts to social and behavioral science research. Today we represent, promote and protect social and behavioral science research across the federal government and across all the different fields of social and behavioral science. So we serve as a united voice for the broader community — whether it’s economics or psychology or linguistics or political science, to name a few. We keep the community together and advocate for all disciplines as a STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] discipline.

Q: I can understand keeping an eye on how the federal government handles its research funding, but why do we need active advocacy?

What we’ve seen over the last 30+ years, at least since COSSA has been around, is that the players may change in Congress or the federal government, but the tactics to attack or undermine or otherwise belittle social and behavioral science research remain unchanged. So we need a constant presence because we can anticipate every year, or every couple of years, these similar attacks coming up – calling out specific grants, or wanting a list of silly titles of grants, or simply suggesting – and this is the challenge we face today – that social and behavioral science isn’t in the ‘national interest’ as defined by some policymakers. It’s not an issue that can be solved and we can move on. Instead, COSSA is an organization that acts to maintain a constant presence in Washington because we expect there to be challenges.

Q: You noted that tactics from opponents have changed. How have advocacy tactics changed?

Advocacy is constantly changing because we’re trying to keep up with the times. Now we’re in this high-tech, highly connected environment and that has meant a big shift in what COSSA and science advocacy does to be effective. In our earlier days, advocacy was being up on the Hill, pounding the pavement, making relationships. While that’s still true today, we live in an instant world and sometimes there isn’t time to go up to the Hill via traditional channels. Instead, we have to engage our grassroots, we need to work with social media, need to be more instant ourselves in combatting attacks as they arrive or by being more proactive and stifling some of those attacks before they become a reality.

Q: But isn’t it to be expected that the government will set its own priorities?

We understand Congress’s role – they certainly have an oversight role over these agencies — but we’ve done best as a country as the top global innovator when science was able to decide what science was worth pursuing, as opposed to adding this layer of politics over it. Science works best when it’s unshackled. It’s not unprecedented that the Congress would set priorities. What’s different now is the intent. When the NSF did receive appropriations according to directorate about a dozen years ago – which was short lived – the intent wasn’t to single out certain directorates for cuts, there wasn’t a malicious intent behind it. And while folks on the Hill today aren’t saying that is the intent, we know that it is. It’s political; it’s ideological.

Q: What can someone in the community who shares your concerns do to help?

What we need, and what we need more of, is stories. There are certainly some good stories out there about social science research that has yielded findings that have changed the world, that have advanced health or security or the economy. We turn to a handful or so examples over and over again.

Basic research is just that, basic, and the building blocks of future discovery. Not everything, not every grant funded by the federal government, will yield some commercialized product or some huge finding in and of itself. Instead, it’s the scaffolding that gets you higher and higher where you need to be. So we need more stories, and we’re trying to find more stories that explain how this is a process over time, and that stifling basic research in its most fundamental sense is cutting off these discoveries down the road that can’t be anticipated. It’s all of the basic science together that leads to these discoveries 20 or 30 or 40 years down the road. [Look for those stories on Twitter: #WhySocialScience #Stand4Science]

Q: This year has been rough. What is your prognosis in the short term and in the long?

You see similar patterns from year to year, even though every year is different and brings new crises. A lot about this year is reminiscent of years past. I suspect we’ll see a ‘continuing resolution’ that carries us into the next fiscal year, but there are much bigger fiscal issues that need to be addressed, such as the debt ceiling and avoiding a government shutdown. The prognosis? I expect that there will be an omnibus spending bill at the end of the year or the beginning of the next to wrap up all these bills and get them over the finish line in the fall or the winter.

My real fear in all this is that as Congress deals with these bigger macroeconomic issues, the challenges we’ve been facing in the last several months in the appropriations bills and the authorization bills will be completely overlooked and get swept into a larger agreement. There may be very limited opportunity to work with Congress on these [social and behavioral science funding] issues that we’re concerned about.

Read past Connecting with the Community interviews:

·        Connecting with the Community: Matt Owens on obscure research that makes a big impact

·        Connecting with the Community: Dr. Richard Gargiulo on writing textbooks

·         Connecting with the Community: Angie Thorpe on the Discovery Experience

·         Introducing “Connecting with the Community,” our new interview blog series


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