May 18, 2006

Request for action from the AAA

[Update: according to Inside Higher Ed

Voicing concern over America's math and science competitiveness, a Senate committee on Thursday unanimously approved legislation that would push physical science research and teaching partnerships involving colleges and government agencies.
On Wednesday, Hutchison proposed an amendment that would have forced NSF to give funding priority to work that is expected to make contributions in the physical sciences, technology, engineering, or math. By voting time, however, a compromise was reached with Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and, while the language in the bill places special emphasis on the physical sciences, Hutchison's amendment was changed to allow NSF to be flexible with its funding priorities.
Hutchison's was the lone voice of concern Thursday.
The bill would also authorize the NSF to give 2,500 additional grants to be used for graduate research fellowships and for the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program, which preps doctoral science and engineering students for interdisciplinary work.

(Thanks to Kai von Fintel for the link.)]

In this case, the "AAA" is the American Anthropological Association, and by several routes today I've gotten copies of an an email with the Subject "Urgent Action Required", regarding a "proposed amendment by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) that would instruct the National Science Foundation (NSF) to direct its resources primarily to the physical sciences." Some further details are available on the AAA website here.

I haven't seen the text of Hutchinson's amendment to S. 2802 (the “American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006”) -- for some reason the AAA web page doesn't quote it or link to it. But as described, it would not only defund sociology, anthropology, linguistics and economics, but also mathematics and most of the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, whose Digital Libraries initiatives had a significant impact on recent American Innovation and Competitiveness:

In 1996, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were graduate computer science students working on a research project supported by the Stanford Digital Library Technologies Project. Their goal was to make digital libraries work, and their big idea was as follows: in a future world in which vast collections of books are digitized, people would use a "web crawler" to index the books' content and analyze the connections between them, determining any given book's relevance and usefulness by tracking the number and quality of citations from other books.

The crawler they wound up building was called BackRub, and it was this modern twist on traditional citation analysis that inspired Google's PageRank algorithms – the core search technology that makes Google, well, Google.

Without seeing the text of the bill and the amendment, or reading a more extensive analysis of what they say and mean, I'm not sure whether this interpretation of the Hutchinson Amendment's effect is valid. In any case, it may be too late to affect this particular committee action one way or another, since the AAA page asserts that "At a meeting of the Senate Commerce Committee TODAY [i.e. Thursday], an authorizing bill – S. 2802 – focusing on American competitiveness will be marked up (i.e. negotiated)", and that phones calls or emails would need to have gone in this morning in order to have an effect on committee members' votes.

On the other hand, this is only a committee vote on "authorizing legislation", so later votes and actions will be at least as important, if not more so. Therefore I suggest that you look into this and act as your political opinions dictate.

[Update: Ben Zimmer writes that

There is no actual amendment (yet) -- Hutchison so far has just been raising questions about what types of projects NSF funds, with vague suggestions that some other agency be in charge of social science funding. So it was a bit misleading for the AAA email to refer to the "Hutchison amendment." The request for action is apparently preemptive, in order to forestall any amendment to the bill that would limit NSF funding to particular disciplines. More here.

Also, there's no indication that Hutchison wants to restrict NSF funding for mathematics (despite the AAA email's reference to "the physical sciences"). In fact, she is quoted by Science as saying: "I want NSF to be our premier agency for basic research in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering. And when we are looking at scarce resources, I think NSF should stay focused on the hard sciences." So it's just those "soft sciences" that would lose out.

Another piece of evidence that one should be careful before crediting mass emails with "Urgent" in the Subject line, even if they come from a semi-reputable source like the AAA. The issue is surely an important one, but it seems to me that the AAA should send out a more accurate picture of what is going on.]

[Update #2: Joshua Tauberer, linguistics grad student, to the rescue:

Hi, Mark. It's a rare moment when my linguistic and non-linguistic activities come together. Details of the bill can be found on my website:

The amendment wasn't linked to or quoted probably because it hasn't been officially proposed as a true amendment, but rather is all happening within committee where public disclosure of things is sadly pretty limited.

Unfortunately this links to the official record on the Thomas website, where the text of the bill is not yet available.]

[Fernando Pereira supplies this link to a "Staff Working Draft" of May 12 on the Senate Commerce Committee web site, which contains the paragraph:

PRIORITY TREATMENT. -- Proposed research activities, and grants funded under the Foundation's Research and Related Activities Account, which can be expected to make contributions in physical and natural sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and other research that underpins these areas, shall be given priority in the selection of awards and in the allocation of Foundation resources.

No amendments are indicated, but this language seems similar to what the Science article suggests that Senator Hutchinson is after.]

[Kai von Fintel sent in a link to a press release from the Senate Commerce Committee, indicating that

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation today approved S. 2802, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, by a vote of 21-0.
S. 2802 responds to recommendations contained in the Council on Competitiveness' Innovate America Report and the National Academies' Rising Above the Gathering Storm Report. In responding to these reports, the legislation focuses on three primary areas of importance to maintaining and improving United States' innovation in the 21st Century: increasing research investment, increasing science and technology talent, and developing innovation infrastructure.

The bill sets authorization levels for both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). To increase the nation's commitment to basic research, the bill increases authorized funding for NSF from $6.4 billion in Fiscal Year 2007 to $11.4 billion in Fiscal Year 2011. The legislation authorizes NIST from approximately $640 million in Fiscal Year 2007 to $937 million by Fiscal Year 2011, and it establishes a Fiscal Year 2007 level of approximately $110 million for the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership program (MEP), which increases to $130 million in fiscal years 2008 through 2011.

In addition, the bill requires the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study to identify forms of risk that create barriers to innovation one year after enactment of the bill and every four years thereafter. The study is intended to support research on the long-term value of innovation to the business community and to identify means to mitigate legal or practical risks presently associated with such innovation activities.

The press release says that "A list of amendments that were adopted as part of a manager's package is attached", but the online version doesn't seem to connect to any such list. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 18, 2006 07:42 PM