The Coburn Amendment Aftermath

by Henry Farrell on March 22, 2013 · 8 comments

in Political Science News

I have a piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education on the consequences of the Coburn amendment.

Contrary to Coburn, Flake, and Rep. Darrell E. Issa of California, the U.S. Congress could use more good social science, not less. Take any urgent policy question—school choice, taxation, global warming—and you will find a multitude of quarreling voices, each trying to shout down the others. Many of those voices belong to lobbyists paid to defend their clients’ interests or to people whose political commitments trump their commitment to the facts. It is very difficult to figure out who is telling the truth and who is not.
Publicly financed social science imposes a tax on dishonest arguments. The NSF requires good research methods and hard results, which can puncture inflated claims. It pushes for well-documented and accessible research, making it easier to figure out who is dealing from the bottom of the deck. Among those recognizing the benefits of NSF-backed research is … none other than Tom Coburn himself, who turned to NSF-supported data gathered by the political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones when he wanted to defend the Government Accountability Office.

Other pieces from around the WWW.

The Economist – “Research into the effectiveness of American policies can only improve them. Going after researchers is a way of shooting the messenger.”

Tim Noah at the New Republic – “As the author of a book on income inequality, my thoughts turn to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, whose “major funding source” is NSF. … Most of what we know about intergenerational trends in income mobility—i.e., how much people move up and down the income ladder—comes from the PSID. … Solving America’s problems is hard enough when you can identify what those problems are. When you can’t, it’s impossible.”

Abby Rapoport at The American Prospect ” If you care about scientific process generally, it’s not hard to see why the amendment is an ominous portent for other NSF programs. ”

Dave Weigel at Slate – “The new amendment, which passed via a voice vote, saved $13 million. I[n] return, it might cripple the American National Election Study.”

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones – “Sen. Tom Coburn has been on an anti-political science kick for years for no real discernible reason. “Theories on political behavior,” he said a few years ago, “are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties, and the voters, rather than being funded out of taxpayers’ wallets.”

Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy – “Now, from a pure material interest perspective, this should make me happy. I’ve never received a dime in NSF funding, and I’m sitting on a pretty good grant for the next 5-10 years, so from a strictly relative gains perspective, I acquire more influence in the discipline. Furthermore, the national security exemption means that whatever scraps the NSF throws to political science will go to my preferred subfields like international relations and comparative politics.The thing is, though, that I love political science. I want to see more quality research being done, and the NSF cutoff pushes things in the opposite direction.”

Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction -”Couldn’t APSA put together some sort of party for all the political science BAs working on Capitol Hill? Do they inform members of Congress about the scholars in their districts who’ve received federal grants and published with them? ”

{ 8 comments }

Scott Monje March 22, 2013 at 2:40 pm

The problem is that we’re appealing to those very “people whose political commitments trump their commitment to the facts”–the people who insist that the Congressional Research Service revoke a paper that doesn’t support their tax policy, who reject Nobel Laureate Peter Diamond as unqualified for the Federal Reserve Board, and who cite the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment of Ryan’s budget but claim that it says the opposite of what it says.

Pepe March 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm

In a way, we got what the Monkey cage, political scientists at NSF and APSA have been asking for. Arguments in defense of political science have in fact single-mindedly stressed research on violence, wars and topics that addressed national security. The ammendment is consistent with this definition of relevance. Well done!

John Sides March 22, 2013 at 3:06 pm
PM March 22, 2013 at 3:41 pm

We could do better as a field defending ourselves and making ourselves relevant. We almost let this happen to us by being weak collectively. I can’t tell you how many fellow political scientists I know who didn’t even know this was an issue, or who didn’t know that Coburn had been trying to defund us in the past. We need to be better citizens of the field and look beyond our own narrow interests as scholars. We need to keep our eyes on more than just the next journal reviewer. Our failure is ironic given that we’re “political” scientists.

Sad APSA press releases clearly aren’t enough. We need to use the bureaucracies of our universities – administrators, lobbyists (if we have them), alumni, etc. – to defend us. Emailing our elected officials on our own isn’t enough, clearly. We should think more about bringing our elected officials to our departments/campuses more to expose them to what we do. Bottom line, we need to advertise ourselves and our research better.

And we need a better frame. This isn’t about “silencing academics.” It’s about hurting universities – their ability to attract money, talented professors, good students, and prestige. Especially smaller schools that don’t have big endowments. And we will make it clear to our students how this hurts them and their educations. We do have platforms, after all. We can all do better together.

polisci March 22, 2013 at 5:44 pm

“Take any urgent policy question—school choice, taxation, global warming—and you will find a multitude of quarreling voices, each trying to shout down the others.”

Not really in APSR or many other political science journals. Still, the Coburn amendment is a cowardly piece of legislation.

Mitch March 22, 2013 at 7:13 pm

As I just mentioned as a comment on Koger’s post:

For a bunch of political scientists, it’s amazing how little every poly sci poster and tweeter knows about the U.S. Senate.

What happened here is simple: One Senator had a hobby-horse issue he attached to a must-pass piece of legislature. No other Senator cared enough about the issue to block him, so both the issue and the legislation became law. When every individual Senator can be a veto player, Senators will hesitate to use the veto for must-pass legislation unless the benefit of the veto outweighs the benefit of the legislation to them personally.

Duh.

So the following questions are wrong:
1.) How could (party X) be so extreme ideologically as to do this?
2.) How could (party non-X) care so less about Science not to stop this?
3.) How could the Senate as a group so meddle in the bureaucracy’s funding of Science?

By the way, party X seems to always be the party the commentator is NOT a member of. This is such a cliche that I won’t bother to cite “Partisan Hearts and Minds” here.

Lloyd Etheredge March 23, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Political independence at NSF has eroded since the Reagan years when OMB Director Stockman launched his pre-emptive strike and threatened to zero-out all behavioral science in the federal budget. For example: Governor Romney’s theory of a dependency syndrome (undermining motivation and a willingness to take responsibility for their lives of 47% of the American people) has been a testable and public Republican claim that has been prominent since Reagan. There have been several rounds of recommendations to create national rapid learning about such ideological claims using the model of the Michelson-Morley experiment in physics, all of them disappearing at NSF. National probability samples with reliable measures of motivation, hierarchical imagery, etc. could be informative to Republicans like Governor Romney and Paul Ryan, who apparently are sincere. Yes, we do need a lot more social science designed for rapid learning.

Talmadge East March 24, 2013 at 2:50 am

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