Political Science, NSF Funding, and the National Interest

As most readers of this blog know by now, 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.


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.

13 Responses to Political Science, NSF Funding, and the National Interest

  1. Mitch March 22, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

    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.


    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.

    • John Sides March 22, 2013 at 7:37 pm #

      Mitch: Maybe you should look at Greg’s vita before you start making accusations about who knows how little about the U.S. Senate.

      • Mitch March 22, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

        I know about and respect Greg’s excellent work in a variety of domains. I’m making a general comment about the discussion within the community.

        • John Sides March 22, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

          Okay then. But when you make reference to “every poly [sic] sci poster” on a post written by a political scientist, it would seem as if you are referring to that person.

  2. Shaun March 22, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    I’m wondering why the American Political Science Association isn’t doing more here. There must be at least a few members who have the ability to do some lobbying on behalf of the membership here.

    Now, I know academic funding isn’t the most publicly popular piece of government spending there is (outside medical research, at least) the obvious line of attack here would be that clearly some lawmakers think so little of their own profession they don’t believe its worth studying.

    APSA should suggest it won’t oppose funding changes if the pay and office budgets of members of Congress are reduced by the same percentage. Since they think so little of the work they do, they should see the sacrifice worthwhile as part of the fight to get the federal deficit under control. Perhaps try and find a sympathetic Senator (if there is one) to attach an amendment of this nature to the legislation. There’s no way it’d pass.

    If done right, there is the possibility a line like this would gain some traction on cable news and in some of the better papers, at least.

    • Shaun March 22, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

      Just to clarify. I’m not suggesting such actions would be easy, and apologise if someone is already trying to do this.

      I’m simply pointing out that as one interest group amongst many, political scientists have to fight for what they want out of the federal budget. To avoid being a victim in such a situation they need to show they’ll bite back when targeted by those that either (1) have an ideological axe to grind with parts of academia or (2) see political scientists/academics as soft targets to prove their ideological purity to primary voters.

  3. Peter March 22, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

    Good piece and I agree on the need for a lobbying campaign. Since the language of the amendment extends only to funding made available by the act, my read is that this funding limitation will only extend for the life of the continuing resolution and will expire in several months. I haven’t seen any legislative language to suggest a permanent change to the law. Limitations on spending in appropriations bills typically only last for the life of the bill (1 year in normal circumstances).

    So, the situation is bad but not as bad as it could be. It seems to me that the main purpose of a lobbying campaign should be to prevent a similar limitation from being added to future bills. This is a real risk, especially since a new CR might just extend the terms of the old, but the onus will still be on Coburn to continue to have the provision added in the future.

  4. Bill Harshaw March 23, 2013 at 10:04 am #

    “Limitations on spending in appropriations bills typically only last for the life of the bill (1 year in normal circumstances)”

    Not necessarily. There have been a number of limitations on spending in the agriculture appropriation bill which have been carried forward for years. To pick up on Mitch’s post, it seems, at least to someone who never worked on the Hill, that as long as the representative or senator is around, it gets repeated. When the people on the Hill forget whose hobby-horse it was and/or why it was initiated, then it gets dropped. Whether or not the bureaucracy takes them seriously is another issue.

  5. Rachel Bitecofer March 23, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    Just one more battle field in the Republican Party’s war on science and data

  6. Bill Harshaw March 23, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    “Limitations on spending in appropriations bills typically only last for the life of the bill “(1 year in normal circumstances)”

    Not necessarily. There have been a number of limitations on spending in the agriculture appropriation bill which have been carried forward for years. To pick up on Mitch’s post, it seems, at least to someone who never worked on the Hill, that as long as the representative or senator is around, it gets repeated. When the people on the Hill forget whose hobby-horse it was and/or why it was initiated, then it gets dropped. Whether or not the bureaucracy takes them seriously is another issue.

  7. John Dickey March 23, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Much of the author’s assumptions are base on the the expectation of a liberal interpretation of of the new policy. Besides the fact that they may just not happen, there is also the problem that the interpretation of the guidelines may differ based upon the political environment. If there is a conservative majority in both houses then the director of the NSF will feel he has less room to maneuver on this policy than he currently does.

    There is also the problem that it may affect what research is getting done. Will people shy away from some research because of the lack of funding?

  8. Max March 24, 2013 at 12:34 am #


    If you’re interested, I found this report by Keith T. Poole from the Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego, which may be of some interest to you as a study that helps explain why our politics are so polarized. It’s dated October 13, 2008, but it has current value. Enjoy!


  9. Scott T May 1, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    Perhaps NSF should consider adding an outside board review process of its awards (in all areas), that would serve as check and balance concept to the existing peer review selections. Not a review of every single award, but a general review of the awards and were they substantially in the national interest. I recognize an outside board can become quite politicized, but it doesn’t have to be this way, and knowing there is a later, general outside look at the awards might reign in some of the awards least defensible for public $$ funding. Seems to me an outside/board scrutiny reporting general results and trends to the NSF Director, is better than (A) no review, and (B) Congressional review.