Updated Text of the Coburn Amendment

by John Sides on March 19, 2013 · 13 comments

in Academia

(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.

(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.

Link here.  The APSA reports:

We believe this amendment will not be attached to SA 26 (Mikulski-Shelby substitute amendment to H.R. 933). However this amendment could be attached to the budget resolution (FY2014) that will be on the floor as early as tomorrow, Wednesday, March 20.

As various efforts to lobby Senators continue, I would be grateful if readers would sign the petition here, if you have not already done so.

{ 13 comments }

Nadia Hassan March 19, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Some studies mentioned in the defense of NSF poli sci funding included one dealing with communication in disaster relief. Would that still be covered until this?

Kevin March 19, 2013 at 10:36 pm

There’s good news and bad news in this change to Coburn’s amendment. The good news is that this appears to be an effort to respond to some of the objections that have been raised here and in other venues. Advocacy efforts are being heard, and that’s encouraging.

The bad news is this also appears to be an effort to divide the coalition that supports political science research and block research that, among other things, monitors the health of American democracy and develops the analytic tools to accomplish that important goal. This broader set of research aims — not just the important research that aids US national security and economic interests — need to be embraced and defended by our community.

Now is the time to charge ahead in our advocacy, not the time to back down. The changes that have already been made show that advocacy can make a difference here; we need to continue the fight. If you’ve not signed the petition linked above, it just takes a minute, and if you’ve read this far in the comments you clearly have the time. If you have signed the petition, call your Senators (at least if you have them — some of us live in DC). And most importantly, share these tools with your friends, family, and colleagues so our voices can be amplified.

Tracy Lightcap March 19, 2013 at 11:20 pm

Here’s what I sent my senators:

________________________________
I see that Senator Coburn has decided to continue the campaign against basic research in political science in his latest letter to NSF Director Suresh. His point seems to be that we need to re-direct funds to “ … fund research basic fields of mathematics and science such as engineering, biology, physics, and technology.” Political science research aimed at such things as the level of cooperation presidents have with Congress when they use executive orders are not as worthy of funds.

You may remember all of the many useful studies on political affairs that were memorialized to you the last time I wrote on this subject. But let’s lay that aside and look at Dr. Coburn’s main point: he thinks we need to prioritize NSF research grants in a few areas that can “… translate into advances in scientific knowledge and benefits to our nation’s economy.”

This is a common view, I know, but a moment’s reflection will show how short sighted it is. Who knew when the NSF began to fund studies in what has become known as “Big Data” – studies where political scientists (Gary King at Harvard, among others) were prominent – that it would totally transform the way we do business in America? Or how we treat disease? Or how we manage both public agencies and private businesses? Or – and this is really out of left field – how we date? The answer is simple: no one. The NSF funded the studies because it seemed to the expert panels there that it could – only could – become useful. And, sure enough, investing in the social sciences, including political science, has literally changed our lives for the better in a very short time indeed.

It’s useful to remember that most basic research is pretty useless in people’s everyday lives. And a good deal of it leads absolutely nowhere. But … then something like Big Data comes along and the payoff is enormous. And it is almost impossible to predict where that payoff will come from. The people in the social sciences who came up with the basic techniques used for Big Data analysis were not – believe it – looking for ways to transform how Amazon advertises.

I hope you will remember this and vote to keep basic research in the social sciences, including political science, funded. You never know what Gary King will come up with next.

________________________________

And, I would add: Since when do we see Boards of Directors sitting down to consider the merits of ordered logit multi-variate regression models? Yes: like, never in Hell. What it comes down to is that social scientists – and, on the analytical side, it was mainly sociologists and political scientists – whose research is changing the entire world we live in at a breakneck pace. The problem isn’t the NSF signing on to massive changes in the economy due to social science research; they’ll do that without a second thought. The problem is getting our representatives to wake up and see what’s happening around them.

Now with Dr. Coburn, it’s easy. He has, no doubt, gotten updates on how the Obama campaign used Big Data in the last election and no doubt it has scared him excrementalist. He has a basic understanding of science, after all. His opposition to political science research is simple: he’s afraid, for good reason, that someone will use these techniques as a way to overcome the money advantage the Pubs have at all levels, including his own. But the attack back is simple too: these techniques can be used by anyone. You are depriving your side of a potential advantage by choking off research in these areas.

But, of course, you couldn’t put it that starkly in a letter to a Senator. Or could you?

Mark March 20, 2013 at 9:30 am

This discussion points out why this funding will continue to be at risk. I enjoy the analytical posts on this blog and have learned a lot but let’s face it – you have two problems:

1. Most of what you do is interesting and nice to know but it is not critical from a federal funding perspective. As I said, I’d miss the research because I find it interesting but I’ve had experience having to make tough budget decisions and your stuff mostly doesn’t meet the cut.

2. Your field is a cheerleading section for the Democratic party. You don’t think that’s a problem when you need bipartisan support for your funding? C’mon you’re political scientists – I thought you would have figured this out.

Matt Jarvis March 20, 2013 at 5:40 pm

We are a punching bag for the Republican party….there’s a difference.

Tracy Lightcap March 20, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Mark,

Two things.

First, as I point out above, almost all basic and, btw, most applied research doesn’t have any relevance to the everyday lives of any of us. Most of it is a complete dead-end. By this perspective, we should cut funding for CERN first. After all, that’s largely a subsidy for the EU (it’s their accelerator and they provide most of the personnel) and, when you get right down to it, who cares if there’s a Higgs boson or not? There is zero payoff for knowing that, except to physicists who won’t have to re-write their lectures.

Second, there’s a reason why we look – only look – like a cheerleading section for the Dems. They’re the ones who see what we are doing and use it. Trying to get bi-partisan support for science is a bit hard when you go up against Paul Broun on House science. I’m sure that if Pubs were more interested in actual science instead of a few engineering applications, there’d be plenty of courting by political scientists. As it is, the argument is like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjMiDZIY1bM

Literally.

Lee Drutman March 20, 2013 at 11:46 am

I’m sorry, but for a profession of people who spend their time thinking about politics, why is our lobbying strategy on this issue so LAME?

Do we really think a small petition is going to make a difference?

Why isn’t APSA hiring a former Coburn staffer as a lobbyist?

Also, APSA has a nice center in DC. Seems like APSA could host a few events that bring in political scientists to talk about their research, invite a bunch of congressional staffers, and have some nice conversations about how political science research might actually be worth funding.

It just seems amazing that for a discipline devoted to understanding politics, we can’t figure out a more sophisticated lobbying strategy than having APSA send out an “Action Alert”

WB March 20, 2013 at 8:21 pm

There is an abundance of interest-group research that has identified effective (and ineffective) lobbying strategies. To influence Congress, groups need, above all, money. The money is for two priorities: buying access through campaign contributions and maintaining access with permanent, Washington-based lobbying resources.

Buying access is an obvious point that doesn’t require explanation. But maintaining access is equally important and is often overlooked by people.

Interest groups that are able to maintain permanent lobbying teams in Washington are the most likely to connect with members of Congress. These teams spend every day establishing, or expanding, or grooming relationships with legislative aides and other congressional staffers. There are approximately 25,000 interest groups, all vying for access. Most of them lack the resources to coordinate such efforts. At best, they can hire a lobbying firm for short periods, when Congress takes up legislation that pertains directly to them. But this kind of intermittent lobbying is usually unsuccessful and, for the most part, a waste of money. Members of Congress listen primarily to groups that have spent years–I repeat years–building relationships with lawmakers.

Kevin Leyden, in a 1995 study on interest groups, quotes a congressional staffer on the issue of access and influence: “If as a lobbyist you are doing your job right, … for months or years before the issue comes up you have gone in to talk with the congressmen and the committee staff people … so they know what your position is. You have to establish relations beforehand.”

In other words, there is no such thing as a “sophisticated lobbying strategy.” There are only PACs and K Street offices staffed with former members of Congress. APSA lacks the resources to mount an effective lobbying effort, and therefore has few options beyond petitions and indignant op-eds.

Jonathan Ladd March 21, 2013 at 12:01 am

WB,

While there are certainly limits, professional organizations with comparable budgets can devote more resources to lobbying and be much more effective than APSA is at defending the integrity of the scientific enterprise from political interference. For instance, the American Economic Association has a government relations office plus a faculty government relations committee (http://www.aeaweb.org/committees/Govt_Relations/), while the American Psychological Association web site indicates it has three government relations offices (http://www.apa.org/about/gr/index.aspx).

Tracy Lightcap March 21, 2013 at 12:06 pm

I think we have a bigger problem here.

For the economists and the shrinks there are outside interests (business, the medical/social work complex) that have a real interest in promoting further study by the disciplines. Hence, it is easy for them to get allies.

Unfortunately, the people who make the decisions about our funding are the very people who are most interested in our research, especially when it comes to studies of elections and institutional operations. Problem = this is a classic asymmetric information situation and the people who make the funding decisions are the ones on the plus side of the information gap. In general, they aren’t interested in seeing that gap diminish; it’s their stock-in-trade, after all. Hence, the difficulty of political science getting the funding it needs for many projects (though, if the NSF is willing to do so, the amendment has holes you could drive an MBT through). I might add that, given the way campaigning packages are available today, the lack of allies extends all the way down to the local level. Every elected politician in the U.S. has to feel ambivalent about research on how they do their work.

This isn’t to say that we can’t find allies in the other social sciences or – if APSA would get rid of this ridiculous obsession with being “politically neutral” – from outside “reform” groups. We should have better infrastructure for this. But we need to recognize that it’ll be an uphill battle. We need to start with it now, however, and get this reversed come 1 October.

Nadia Hassan March 21, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Is there a chance of getting it reversed come 1st October? The House voted to prohibit NSF Poli Sci funding wholesale! So, if an amendment that loosens strings probably wouldn’t go through the house, and maybe not even through the Senate in light of yesterday. :(

Keith March 21, 2013 at 2:45 pm

I agree with what you are saying. It is clearly an intentional act on the part of certain members of Congress. Given the sponsors of the amendment, should we be surprised that it was even offered? I didn’t even have to see the names on the amendment to have a good idea who was pushing it through.

The bigger picture is that there is just no support for education and research in the United States. If some politicians had there way, they would cut all research funding across the board. This should be a wake-up call to all disciplines, not just political science.

Keith March 21, 2013 at 2:41 pm

I have to say I am surprised and disappointed. I was hoping for a better response from Congress. The huge amounts of foreign aid that we dole out as well as the hugely bloated military budget could certain stand some trimming, and yet Congress — in its “infinite” wisdom — goes after problems like this to make ends meet.

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