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What Statisticians Should Watch in Congress in 2011

1 May 2011 1,871 views No Comment
This column is written to inform ASA members about what the ASA is doing to promote the inclusion of statistics in policymaking and the funding of statistics research. To suggest science policy topics for the ASA to address, contact ASA Director of Science Policy Steve Pierson at pierson@amstat.org.

Contributing Editor
Pierson-color copySteve Pierson earned his PhD in physics from the University of Minnesota. He spent eight years in the Physics Department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and later became head of government relations at the American Physical Society before joining the ASA as director of science policy.

The 112th Congress is well under way, with federal budget discussions grabbing most of the headlines. Once the fiscal year 2011 (FY11) budget is resolved, what are the issues that might interest ASA members in 2011? Which issues should ASA members contact their members of Congress about? The list below includes the FY12 federal budgets, forensic science, statistics education, and U.S. Census Bureau issues.

Federal Budget

Once Congress and President Obama finalize the FY11 federal budget, attention will quickly turn to the FY12 budget, where many of the FY11 battles will be replayed. With Republicans having successfully made the discussion about cutting federal spending, it is imperative for ASA members and the broader scientific community to persuade Congress of the importance of basic research funding and the statistical agencies. It is easiest for Congress to cut the budgets of the programs about which their constituents are not calling.

Like FY11, the FY12 debates will be about how much to cut federal spending not if to cut federal spending. Fortunately for the science and statistical agencies, the Obama Administration is a strong supporter and has requested increases, which may help these agencies withstand the powerful House drive to cut federal spending across the board. (See ASA Community blogs.)

While cutting all federal spending is the primary driver for those who want to cut budgets for science and statistical agencies, there have also been specific policy reasons. There were at least two amendments drafted for the House’s first budget proposal FY11 in February—H.R. 1—that would have defunded the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). (See Impacts of House H.R. 1 on Statistical Agencies.) There were also proposals to cut funding for research or programs having to do with climate change.

In an effort that would have undermined merit-based, peer-reviewed grant funding at the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) offered six amendments that would have disallowed funding for research on the following:

  • Impact of integral yoga on hot flashes in menopausal women
  • Impact of a soda tax on population health
  • Use of marijuana in conjunction with opioid medications
  • Condom use skills in adult males
  • Concurrent and separate use of malt liquor and marijuana among young adults
  • Whether video games improve mental health for the elderly

Fortunately, none of the above H.R. 1 amendments were approved.

While amendments like those offered by Issa have a long history in Congress, a House Republican effort launched last year—YouCut Citizen Review, particularly targeting social science funding at the National Science Foundation—seems to have been the first to articulate a campaign against such research funding. In a video posted on Majority Whip Eric Cantor’s website, Nebraska Rep. Adrian Smith invites viewers to “identify grants which do not support the hard sciences or which you don’t think are a good use of taxpayer dollars.” As examples, he mentions a $750,000 grant to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players and a $1.2 million grant to model the sound of objects breaking (for use by the video game and movie industries.)

Besides the funding levels decided upon for FY12, the timeline for deciding next year’s budget will also be of interest. 1994 was the last time the entire federal budget was signed into law by the start of the fiscal year (October 1). Since then, only parts of the federal budget have been passed in time for the fiscal year start. FY11 was an exception, with none of the federal budget decided at the fiscal year’s start. The FY11 budget still being debated in April compresses the time for resolving the FY12 budget and suggests the continuing resolutions will again be prevalent. As we’ve seen in FY11 and previous years, continuing resolutions hamstring agency planning, grant funding, and new initiatives.

Watch for ASA updates on the FY11 and FY12 budget through Amstat News, the ASA E-newsletter, the ASA homepage, and the ASA Community. And please be prepared to act.

Forensic Science

Legislation to enact recommendations from the 2009 National Academies’ report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, should also be watched, given ASA members playing a prominent role in forensic science issues and the ASA Board’s April 2010 endorsement of a Statement on Forensic Science. Independence of the forensic science reform efforts will be a key issue.

On January 25, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC), introduced S. 132, the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act. While the bill has many components, one of the most important is the creation of the Office of Forensic Science (OFS) and a forensic science board to oversee the much-needed reform. While the ASA supports forensic science reform, it does not support S. 132 because the legislation places OFS in the Department of Justice (DOJ). 2012 ASA President Bob Rodriguez’s letter to Chairman Leahy states the following:

As Strengthening Forensic Science notes, DOJ’s “principal mission is to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law.” A DOJ-hosted OFS therefore presents potential conflicts of interest precluding the independence required for a forensic science office to be effective at serving the entire forensic science community, including defendants. Furthermore, because DOJ is so integrally tied to the forensic science culture and current problems, a forensic science office must be independent of the DOJ to realize the necessary changes in a timely manner. Finally, DOJ lacks the expertise and infrastructure to support the scientific needs of a forensic science institute.

Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation chair, John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), listed forensic science reform as one of his committee’s 2011 agenda items. If he were to introduce his own bill, it’s likely a forensic science office/institute would be hosted at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Rodriguez also wrote a letter to Rockefeller urging him to act on the Strengthening Forensic Science recommendations. If a Rockefeller forensic science bill were to establish a forensic science office/institute at NIST—instead of as an independent agency as strongly recommended by the ASA and in the National Academies’ report—Rodriguez says such a hosting should be temporary:

[NIST] could serve as the incubator for NIFS, if the following conditions are met. Most importantly, placing NIFS within NIST should be temporary, with the legislation specifying that independence be considered after, say, three years and realized within, say, five years. NIFS also should have the autonomy and resources within NIST to meet its responsibilities and foster its independence.

K–12 Statistics Education

No Child Left Behind (aka the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) is well past its authorization limits and there is again speculation about the bill being reauthorized this year. To prepare for this possibility and to have statistics education promoted in the bill, ASA members should be talking to their members of Congress—their U.S. representative and both U.S. senators—about the value of statistics education. An excellent vehicle for this is the Statistics Teaching, Aptitude, and Training Act (STAT Act). Introduced in the last Congress as H.R. 6355 by Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA), the bill is about to be introduced again with minor modifications.

To help your U.S. representative understand the importance of K–12 education and promote the STAT Act in the new Congress, sign up for the ASA Statistical Literacy Grassroots Campaign. You will be provided with assistance for setting up and preparing for a meeting with your representative in his/her home district.

Thanks to meetings ASA members had with their representatives or his/her staff last year, the bill garnered 10 cosponsors in the lame-duck session of last Congress, and many more offices heard the importance of statistics education. We’re hoping for more cosponsors in the new Congress.

The American Community Survey and U.S. Census Bureau

The H.R. 1 amendments to defund the ACS are neither new nor unique. The ACS, started in 2005 as a replacement for the decennial census long form, is a rolling survey to 2.9 million housing units annually covering economic, social, housing, and demographic information. In FY09, ACS data helped guide $485 billion dollars in federal spending and is used by Congress and state and local government for policy planning relating to transportation, housing, economic development, education, and social services.

Businesses and nonprofits also use the data for a variety of uses, including business expansion, plant siting, market research, and other activities contributing to economic development. The FY11 and FY12 budget requests propose expanding the sample size to 3.5 million annually.

Adding to funding cut threats each appropriations cycle, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) has proposed bills in this and the last Congress to make all but four of the questions voluntary (respondent’s name and contact information, date of response, and number of people living/staying at address). Thirty-five representatives sponsored the bill (H.R. 3131) in the last Congress, and 16 have sponsored the bill (H.R. 931) as of April 4 in the new Congress. The Republican National Committee (RNC) also passed a resolution last summer to abolish the ACS or make it voluntary. Cosponsors of the Poe bills are likely responding to constituent complaints about the “intrusiveness” of the ACS questions, the time it takes to complete the survey, or that response is mandatory.

In response to the RNC resolution, the ASA organized a round of visits to key congressional offices and a multi-organization letter that includes support for the current ACS format. It also produced a short document about the importance of the ACS.

With the termination of Canada’s census long form last year, the ASA continues to monitor ACS-related development to avoid the same fate. Should any of the efforts to undermine ACS gain traction, ASA members may be asked to contact their members of Congress.

More broadly, following the nearly successful effort last year to give the U.S. Census Bureau more autonomy (see “Bill Increasing U.S. Census Bureau Autonomy Fizzles”), similar bills are likely to be introduced in this Congress.

Further Issues

The ASA will, of course, be following other issues in this Congress, including those mentioned in last July’s “Congress Appears Gridlocked for Remainder of Year.” We will also be following administration developments, including efforts to ease the service of federal scientists in professional society governance and the establishment of the Office of Financial Research (OFR) at the Department of the Treasury. For the former, see “Obama Administration Science Integrity Memo includes Good News for ASA Governance and Government Statisticians: More Steps Necessary.”

The OFR was created in last year’s Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act as a means to provide the data and analytic tools to avoid future collapses of our financial system. Much of the credit for the inclusion of OFR in the Dodd-Frank bill goes to members of the Committee to Establish the National Institute of Finance (CE-NIF). With ASA member John Liechty as a founding member of CE-NIF and the ASA’s Board endorsement of NIF, the ASA has been monitoring OFR’s creation through meetings with Treasury officials and a November 2010 letter to Secretary Timothy Geithner.

If you’d like to comment about any of the above or suggest other issues for the ASA to watch for or act on, please Steve Pierson at pierson@amstat.org.

Science Policy Actions

ASA signs letters in support of budgets for NSF, NIH, NCHS, and U.S. Census Bureau
ASA president-elect sends letters to Senators Leahy and Rockefeller about forensic science reform
ASA participates in Climate Summit, a meeting of science societies to discuss climate science communication

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