National Science Foundation

“If politics determines what is palatable, we could be picked off one at a time.”

May 14 '13

A letter by political scientist Rick Wilson, published in Science (gated):

The “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013” (1) guaranteeing funding for the federal government has, buried in the legislation, a direct attack on science. Senator Tom Coburn (R–OK) introduced an amendment that eliminates all political science research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), except where it promotes the “national security or the economic interests of the United States” (2). The amendment passed under a voice vote in the Senate, the full bill passed both the Senate and the House, and the President signed it into law on 26 March.

While a seemingly innocuous bit of legislating, this amendment constitutes a serious threat to the conduct of science in the United States. The NSF has long been a preeminent institution for funding basic research and relies on an independent peer-reviewed system. Now political judgment is supplanting scientific judgment. The congressional mandate is clear: No funding will be available for basic research in political science. Legislation now dictates which topics can be studied and eliminates entire fields of study.

Some scientists may view this as a minor matter. After all, some believe that the study of politics cannot be scientific or that this is simply one small program among hundreds at NSF. However, political science is a defined discipline. It studies the exercise of power, it tests hypotheses, and it draws inferences from well-measured empirical phenomena. Worse, the larger science community should not ignore the shackling of one program at NSF. If politics dictates what is worth studying, all disciplines are at risk. Why stop at political science? Why not neuter any grants that touch on evolutionary theories? After all, many in Congress deny the value of Darwin. The challenge to science is clear. If politics determines what is palatable, we could be picked off one at a time. The science community needs to clearly voice its opposition to this political intrusion in defining what is acceptable science.