Academics Debate the Cut in NSF PoliSci Funding

Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to prohibit the National Science Foundation from funding any research in the field of political science. The Congressman behind the amendment, which passed by a largely party-line vote, was Jeff Flake who, during the debate into the measure, said that his motivation was largely the thought that the government couldn’t afford to fund dubious research projects at the time when every 40 cents in discretionary federal spending was borrowed.

During the debate on the amendment Flake explained:

There are things, however, given the economic realities, that Congress ought to reconsider funding on the back of future generations. Just remember, every dollar we’re spending in discretionary spending this year, we are borrowing from our kids and our grand-kids.

Let me simply say I can think of few finer examples to cut than the National Science Foundation’s Political Science Program. According to the NSF Web site, to date, more than $80 million has been awarded to the program’s nearly 200 active projects. Three-quarters of these awards, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion.

A political move to cut political science research did raise a few giggles around the blogosphere, as a few writers and columnists expressed alarm at what they felt was political intrusion into the field that had previously been largely insulated from partisanship. As Christopher Zorn, Liberal Arts Research Professor of Political Science at the Pennsylvania State University, wrote in a guest post for The Monkey Cage blog, the NSF up till now has allocated funding based on a scientific peer review process. The thoroughness of this system were demonstrated by the fact that only one out of every five political science proposals submitted were approved for funding. With the new amendment, Congressman Flake is attempting to substitute his own judgment for that of the NSF vetting committee, something that Flake, according to Zorn, isn’t qualified to do.

Professor Zorn wasn’t the only one to take exception to the new rule. Doug Lederman, writing for Inside Higher Ed, said that although it has become a yearly rite for Congressmen to read off a laundry list of projects funded by the government that they consider to be a waste of taxpayers’ money, the ones singled out by Flake, especially those studying why American youth weren’t engaging with the political process and why elected officials so badly represent the people who elected them, were particularly troublesome.

But the projects that Flake cited, and that the NSF program supports, deal with such topics as “national security and the understanding of democracy worldwide,” Michael A. Brintnall, [executive director of the American Political Science Association] said, “These were not goofy titles. This is substantive work. We know there’s a sentiment out there that views science and research” with some skepticism, but he admitted to some surprise at how “surgical” Flake’s focus on political science was.

Although the vote may be purely symbolic, since the provision would need to survive the reconciliation process with the version passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate, it’s of little comfort, except as a source for some humor, to Jennifer Lawless, an Associate Professor of Government at American University and a researcher on one of the projects named by Flake on the House floor. She joked that the latest scuffle might obviate her need to do further research into why more young Americans are not considering politics as their future career.

05 19, 2012
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