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

By Gregory Koger

Step1: the U.S. economy is severely hindered by the refusal of our elected officials to resolve the nation’s long term fiscal problems with a stable compromise. This also includes Congress’s refusal to enact appropriations bills in a timely fashion—remember, we are talking about a bill to fund government agencies for the fiscal year starting October 1, 2012—or reauthorize major legislation affecting the domestic economy, e.g. highway spending, agriculture, and education. The uncertainty, delay, and confusion caused by this legislative dysfunction reduces economic growth and increases unemployment.

Step 2: the Senate filibuster is a major contributing factor to this dysfunction. [note: so is partisan polarization, so any study that helps explain why our politics are so polarized would be helpful here as well].

Step 3: the Senate filibuster cannot be fully understood without studying its public dimension. a) a classic justification for the filibuster is that, by delaying a measure, senators can “expand the game” by rallying public opinion…but we don’t know if this actually happens. b) recent research theorizes that legislators may filibuster to obtain political advantage rather than actually affect legislative outcomes, e.g. Strom Thurmond’s historic filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Act, but does not systematically test this claim with public opinion data.

Therefore, NSF funding of this project will help explain the incentives for senators to systematically degrade the national and international economy.

Or, we can justify this project on the basis of national security.

Step 1: in recent weeks, senators have filibustered nominees for the Secretary of Defense and CIA Director. And, in recent years, senators have placed blanket holds on all military promotions. In each case, senators have not opposed the nominees per se, but rather used them as hostages to gain leverage on some other issue.

Step 2: these filibusters have a negative impact on national security by disrupting the chain of command and reducing troop morale.

Step 3: we do not know whether citizens are aware of, and approve of, these filibusters. Nor do we know what kind of hostage-taking, if any, the general public accepts as a legitimate basis for jeopardizing national security. Only by polling before, during, and after such episodes can we understand public attitudes toward obstruction and why these filibusters occur.

While I think this particular project is well-justified, the irony of this form of justification is that in order to receive support for careful scientific testing of causal claims one might have to make unsubstantiated claims about how one’s research is linked to U.S. economic or security interests.

II. Everything

Even if the short-term effects are limited, I find this episode depressing. Of all the scientific endeavors, political science has been singled out for scorn and special scrutiny. Some media responses attribute this attack not to the notion that our research is “useless” but rather too important:

Singling out political science for a cut seems absurd, until you consider that political scientists conduct research about elected officials and also that this research (usually) doesn’t rely on access or parlor games. Unlike reporters, who must establish relationships to gain access and information—and risk getting shut out when they write something controversial—political scientists have been free to critique and explain our political process, warts and all, and have never had to fear political repercussions. Until now, it seems.

Even if the national security/economic interests waiver is liberally interpreted, it mandates a public record of each project’s justification along these lines which can itself be scrutinized and heckled by zealous legislators. The restrictions will expire at the end of this fiscal year, but there is no guarantee that Congress will actually pass new spending bills rather than continue the spending and restrictions of H.R. 933 into the future.

The larger point bears repeating: the Coburn amendment represents an assault on the scientific peer review process. Going forward, there is some risk that Coburn et al will be not-so-blind reviewers on every grant the NSF reviews, judging proposals not on their scientific merit or social value but their political implications.

It is also troublesome that the “compromise” version of the amendment focuses on national security and economic interests as the goal of legitimate research. The original mandate of the NSF was ”to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” A great deal of high-value political science research advances the national welfare by evaluating how well our democratic system is functioning. Such research may not kill any terrorists or help any corporations make money, but it is extraordinarily valuable as a guide to a well-governed polity. By constricting the basis for acceptable research to national security and economic interests, the compromise suggests a troubling constriction of the mandate of the NSF which could, over time, expand to other disciplines as well. Going forward, a coordinated lobbying effort is needed not only to roll back the restrictions on political science but to defend the NSF’s core mission as a promoter of scientific research in the public good, broadly defined.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]