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March 25, 2013 12:36 PM Why National Science Foundation Grants in Political Science Matter

By Gregory Koger

On Wednesday Senator Mikulski (D-MD), the floor manager to H.R. 933, a bill to fund federal agencies for the remainder of the fiscal year, accepted an amendment (#65) offered by Tom Coburn (R-OK) to increase scrutiny of National Science Foundation grants in political science. According to the Library of Congress website, Coburn’s amendment was cosponsored by John McCain (R-AZ) and Mark Begich (D-AK). As adopted, the amendment states:

On page 193, between lines 11 and 12, insert the following:
Sec. __. (a) None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States. (emphasis added)
(b) The Director of the National Science Foundation shall publish a statement of the reason for each certification made pursuant to subsection (a) on the public website of the National Science Foundation.
(c) Any unobligated balances for the Political Science Program described in subsection (a) may be provided for other scientific research and studies that do not duplicate those being funded by other Federal agencies.

This version of the amendment was apparently the result of a compromise between Mikulski and Coburn. The initial version eliminated all NSF funding for political science (~$10 million), of which $7 million would be transferred to the National Cancer Institute. When the revised (and final) version of the amendment came up, Mikulski stated:

Mr. President, we have some good news. The good news is that the Senator and I have reached an agreement. There is an acceptable modification. I didn’t know if the Senator wanted to speak on this amendment. May I continue. This amendment ensures that the NSF funding for political science research is widely used focusing on national security and economic interests. I, therefore, believe we can agree to this amendment with a voice vote.

On Thursday the House of Representatives approved the Senate bill without modification, 318-109, and it goes to President Obama for his approval.

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In my view, this amendment means nothing. And it means everything.

I. Nothing

First, the [almost] nothing. I believe, as Mikulski apparently believes, that the national security and/or economic interest exceptions provided by the amendment are big enough to leave all, or almost all, grant-worthy research untouched. This is a common legislative tactic: a draconian rule paired with an executive branch waiver that everyone expects to be used. In doing so, Congress seems to take a bold stand while leaving the status quo virtually unchanged.

For example, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 (a.k.a. Helms-Burton) included a very controversial provision allowing Americans to sue foreign individuals and companies in U.S. courts for using the property they left behind in Cuba. This provision—which sparked protests and counter-laws in other countries—has been used exactly zero times, because section 306 of the law allows the President to suspend the lawsuit provision for six-month intervals. The real effect of the law is to force the President to sign a piece of paper every six months, which President Obama did most recently in January 2013.

Judging by the reactions I have seen and heard so far, it seems that many of my colleagues expect that the waiver will be interpreted narrowly—only proposals directly promoting national security or the U.S. economy have any chance of success. They probably plan to entitle their proposals “A Study to Increase National Security by Increasing the Economic Prosperity of the United States of America.”

First, I should briefly note that almost any NSF-funded project that involves spending money contributes to the U.S. economy.  While we don’t like to think of ourselves and our work as pork projects, it is undeniable that the NSF political science is $10 million of hard-working stimulus.

More seriously, I anticipate a broader reading of the waiver to apply to any study that directly or indirectly increases national security or prosperity. That is, a study can lead to something, which leads to something else, … which leads to national security & prosperity. It is easier to understand this form of reasoning if you participated in high school debate or have spent a lot of time reading books like “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie.”

Let me illustrate with what I consider to be a particularly easy case: polling public reactions to Senate filibusters. Coburn mentioned this study in his brief floor statement on the amendment, then came back to bash it again a minute later. I assume that this is simple modesty on his part: Coburn must think that nothing he or his colleagues does has any effect on American prosperity or security. Surely it is not the case that Coburn is trying to suppress scientific research into Republican obstruction.

So let’s start the justification. Assume at each point that appropriate sources are cited.