Research and Politics

The field of Political Science has been hit hard by an amendment to the Continuing Approriations Act of 2013, which pretty much axes the NSF political science funding mechanism. The money remains with NSF rather than being shifted to the National Cancer Institute and political science research can still be funded, but only if their research is useful for “national security” or “the economic interests” of the United States.

This amendment only applies until the end of this fiscal year, but NSF funding for political science has been on Tom Coburn’s radar for years. Expect more of the same and perhaps even for the rest of the softer sciences.

The links are in presented in order of publication – oldest first:

First, the prequel
New Attempt to Cut NSF Funding for Political Science
March 15, 2013

NSF’s political science program siphons valuable resources away from higher priority research that will yield greater applied benefits and potential to stir further innovation. This amendment does not aim to hinder science, but rather to allocate more support for research that will save lives.
Tom Coburn’s Fact Sheet

The amendment sets up a false dichotomy between medical research and research in
the social sciences that we emphatically reject
Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities

Senate Delivers a Devastating Blow to the Integrity of the Scientific Process at the National Science Foundation
PRNewswire
March 20, 2013
Notable Quotes
Adoption of this amendment is a gross intrusion into the widely-respected, independent scholarly agenda setting process at NSF that has supported our world-class national science enterprise for over sixty years.

The amendment creates an exceptionally dangerous slippery slope. While political science research is most immediately affected, at risk is any and all research in any and all disciplines funded by the NSF. The amendment makes all scientific research vulnerable to the whims of political pressure.

Adoption of this amendment demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the breadth and importance of political science research for the national interest and its integral place on the nation’s interdisciplinary scientific research agenda.

Singling out any one field of science is short-sighted and misguided, and poses a serious threat to the independence and integrity of the National Science Foundation.

And shackling political science within the national science agenda is a remarkable embarrassment for the world’s exemplary democracy.

Money for Military, Not Poli Sci
Libbie A. Nelson | Inside Higher Education
March 21, 2013
Notable Quotes
The amendment defunding political science was adopted in a voice vote that surprised many observers. Ending federal funding for political science research has been a longtime cause for some Republicans in Congress, including the measure’s sponsor, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, and the effort has failed many times in the past.

Senate Moves to Limit NSF Spending on Political Science
Paul Basken | Chronicle of Higher Education
March 21, 2013
Notable Quotes
The amendment was proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican of Oklahoma who has sharply criticized the foundation’s spending priorities.

Mr. Coburn sent a letter last week to the NSF’s director, Subra Suresh, listing a series of agency-financed projects he considered a waste of taxpayer money. His list included several involving political science, including studies of voter attitudes toward the Senate filibuster and of the cooperation between the president and Congress.

Projects likely to be affected, he said, include the American National Election Studies, a landmark series of studies and polls dating to 1948. Its current principal investigators are at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Stanford University.

Political Science Research: Singled Out
R.D.N. | The Economist
March 21, 2013

Tom Coburn Doesn’t Like Political Science
Henry Farrell | Chronicle of Higher Education
March 22, 2013
Notable Quotes
The NSF pays for 61 percent of basic research in the social sciences. Publicly supported academic research is, and should be, democratically accountable. Yet politicians have wisely delegated the particulars of funding lines to the scientific community. Politicians are not scientists, and do not have the expertise to judge which research areas and questions are promising and which are not.

The Coburn amendment changes that. It imposes crude political criteria on scientific grant making, arbitrarily decreeing that social scientists cannot get funds for studying key aspects of politics. It is clear that Coburn’s ambitions stretch far beyond the social sciences. In previous reports he has attacked the NSF for purportedly useless research in robotics, biology, and other areas of the natural sciences.

If this precedent is not reversed, it will probably be expanded in unhappy ways. Politicians will attach ever-more-onerous conditions to NSF funds, in order to make sure that research they like gets money, while research that they dislike does not. Politicians should not micromanage the grant-making process. They are likely to not only misunderstand the science but use their influence to mischaracterize good research in attempts to score political points.

In the worst-case scenario, Coburn’s amendment could also set a dangerous precedent for academic research in general. Introducing political micromanagement into a system that should be governed by scientific criteria would essentially politicize science. The NSF finances important research in politically controversial areas such as climate science, biology, and evolutionary science. To date, the NSF has been able to shield grant-making decisions in those areas from broader political acrimony. Politicians who deny global warming and evolution have not wanted to seem overtly anti-science, and have refrained from direct attack.

That delicate balance may be upset, as it becomes more acceptable to interfere with the inner workings of decision making at the NSF. Research on global warming, evolution, and biology may become fair game. The Coburn amendment is a tragedy for both political science and public debate. Its broader legacy may be a tragedy for the basic process of scientific discovery, if it is not swiftly reversed. Tom Coburn may not like political science. It’s important to remember that many of his colleagues don’t like science at all.

What We Need to Know about the NSF Funding Vote
Seth Masket | Mischiefs of Faction Blog
March 26, 2013
This blog entry is mostly a call to action among political scientists. He starts out by commenting on some of the technical details of the legislation from his history as a Congressional staffer.

That Time Where Tom Coburn Didn’t Believe in Micro-Managing Scientific Research
John Sides | The Monkey Cage Blog
March 27, 2013
In this post, Sides finds a time when Tom Coburn argues against micromanaging scientific research:

Coburn told Nature Medicine that he will continue to oppose any disease-specific legislation because he doesn’t think Congress should micromanage the leaders of the NIH. “If you’re going to do a disease-specific bill, you ought to tell them what mass spectrometer to buy,” he quips.

Tom Coburn Flip-Flops on NSF Funding of Political Science Research
John Sides | The Monkey Cage Blog
December 20, 2011
This piece gives some nice examples of Coburn deriding political science research and then using some NSF-funded political science research to support a point he was making about the decline in Congressional oversight.

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