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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.

Reactions

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.

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]