Archive | National Science Foundation

Federal Funding of Scientific Research Produces Unexpected Successes

Seven researchers, including two Nobel Prize winners, will be honored today at the second annual Golden Goose Award ceremony, celebrating researchers whose seemingly odd or obscure federally funded research turned out to have a significant impact on society.
The awardees will be honored at a ceremony on Capitol Hill, where they will receive their awards from a bipartisan group of Members of Congress.

From the press release.  The Golden Goose website is here. A short item at Inside Higher Ed is here.

Several months ago, I wrote a post called “Why Study Social Science” and said this:

…it’s very hard to determine the value of any research ahead of time.  It’s hard because any one research project is narrow.  It’s hard because you can’t anticipate how one project might inform later ones.  It’s hard because some funding goes to create public goods—like large datasets—that many others will use, and those myriad projects also cannot be anticipated.  It’s hard because some research won’t work, and we can’t know that ahead of time.

The Golden Goose awards illustrate what I meant, as does Robert Putnam’s story.  This is all the more reason why cherry-picking projects that sound “silly” (duck penises, etc.) is not a useful way to evaluate the efficacy of federal funding of scientific research.

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Oh No, My Research Project on the Culture and Social Norms of Museum Lawyers Is In Big Trouble!

Step One: Look for Questionable Grants
Click here to open the National Science Foundation website. In the “Search Award For” field, try some keywords, such as: success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc. to bring up grants. If you find a grant that you believe is a waste of your tax dollars, be sure to record the award number.

Step Two: Submit Award Numbers
Use this form to submit the award numbers of grants that you believe are wasteful; we will publish a report outlining the grants identified by the YouCut community.

Those are the instructions on Rep. Eric Cantor’s “YouCut” page for the National Science Foundation.  I invite readers to enter their names and an award number, but then in the comments section provided, tell Rep. Cantor and Rep. Smith why this is a great award.

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NSF cancels funding round

As Nature reports, the NSF has cancelled its target dates for this round of political science funding. As best as we currently know, the NSF is planning to go ahead with its January 2014 funding round. Presumably, this is linked to uncertainties surrounding the Coburn amendment. The Nature story quotes me as saying that this is somewhere between devastating and crippling to political science funding as a whole – what I had meant to refer to was the fallout that would happen if NSF were to cancel political science funding altogether (which is not currently on the cards). Obviously, if you care about this issue and are a political science academic, you should talk to your university president, and your local Congressman/woman/Senator’s office.

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Update on the Senate Appropriations Committee and NSF Polisci Funding

From the American Political Science Association, via email:

On July 18, 2013, the Senate Appropriations Committee reported its FY2014 CJS Appropriations bill. The very good news is that this bill does NOT include any restrictions on NSF funding for political science research, a positive development of our strategy to eliminate any language similar to the so-called Coburn amendment that was added to the FY2013 appropriations bill earlier this year.

Still, there will be opportunities for amendments to the FY2014 bill—or any omnibus bill – when it comes to the Senate floor.

More is here.  A portal for contacting your Senator is here.

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Frank Lautenberg and the National Science Foundation

This is a guest post by Jeanne Zaino, who is Professor of Political Science & International Studies at Iona College.


Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) will likely be remembered for the work he did on a wide range of policy issues from transportation and public health to affordable housing, the environment, and refugees. What is sometimes not recognized is that as a long-standing member of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Sen. Lautenberg also fought to retain the National Science Foundations (NSF’s) support for all the sciences.
At a time when public funding for the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences are under attack, just a few months after the Senate voted to restrict funding for political science research and weeks after a House Subcommittee Chair requested the NSF turn over information about reviewers comments, it is important that we remember Sen. Lautenberg for his work in this area.

One notable example occurred in May 2006. At that time the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee was considering the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006 (S.2802). The bill included a provision directing the NSF to prioritize grants that “make contributions in physical and natural sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, and other research that underpins these areas.” Another member of the Committee, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), was upset by the last phrase because she felt it left too much room for the agency to support projects that don’t enhance America’s competitiveness, most notably the SBE sciences. As a result she offered an amendment designed to close this loophole and in doing so attempted to exclude funding for both the natural and social sciences.

This wasn’t the first time Hutchison had expressed dismay regarding the NSF’s funding of the SBE sciences. During an address at the Lasker Medical Research Awards Luncheon a few months earlier she questioned the wisdom of the NSF’s spending on social science research. She later cited specific grants she found questionable and asked whether this type of research could be funded elsewhere? She also made it clear that while she supported doubling the NSF’s budget, she did not believe any of those funds should go towards the social sciences.

Unlike Hutchison, Sen. Lautenberg not only implicitly understood, but spoke out in favor of the need to support the NSF’s commitment to all sciences. Consequently, when Hutchison offered an amendment excluding funding for the social and natural sciences he took it upon himself to reach across the aisle and work with her to fashion a bipartisan solution. The compromise they came up with included language which would allow the NSF to continue to fund all scientific research. This is reflected in the language included in sub-section (d) of SEC. 307 ‘Meeting Critical National Science Needs’ which reads in part: “[n]othing in this section shall be construed to restrict or bias the grant selection process against funding other areas of research deemed by the Foundation to be consistent with its mandate, nor to change the core mission of the Foundation.”

As she later made clear, Hutchison was not particularly happy with the compromise and continued to believe that the NSF shouldn’t support most SBE projects. Nevertheless, as a result of Lautenberg’s efforts, she joined with the rest of the committee in voting the bill out unanimously.

Hutchison’s arguments against SBE funding are eerily reminiscent of those being made today by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), and others. The difference is, unlike Hutchison, when Coburn proposed an amendment in March limiting funding for political research he was successful. And while NSF Acting Director Marrett rebuffed Smith’s recent request for reviewer comments and other information, we still don’t know what the ultimate outcome of that situation will be.

So even though Sen. Lautenberg is not usually remembered for his efforts to protect NSF funding for all sciences, now is a particularly good time to recall this important part of his legacy.

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An Update from Capitol Hill on the NSF Political Science Program (and a Bleg)

On Friday I spoke to a staff person for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology about the prospects for National Science Foundation funding of political and social science research.  The next legislative step is the re-authorization of the American COMPETES Act, which will likely occur in late June or early July.

This staff person said that there was a very real threat that political science funding or social science funding could be eliminated in the legislation produced by the committee.  In his opinion, the committee’s chair, Lamar Smith, would not necessarily push for either of these himself.  But if another committee member proposed an amendment eliminating this funding, it might be tough to defeat.  This staff person said that some House Republicans are looking to cut discretionary spending wherever they can.  He also said that political science in particular was a relatively easy and powerless target.  And it does not help that few of the Republican members of this committee have universities in their districts.  Moreover, even if political and social science funding survives the reauthorization, there is always the possibility for limitations to come via the appropriations process in the fall.  (See this post at Mischiefs of Faction.)

In short, there is still real cause for concern.  I asked him what we could to do help.  He said that what he needs is this: “bite-sized” stories about political science research, and especially research that would be appealing to more conservative members of the committee.  I asked him for examples of the kinds of topics that might qualify.  He suggested research about national security, transparency, and how to make government smaller and/or smarter.  He noted that he already uses the story of Elinor Ostrom’s research, since her work on managing common-pool resources often emphasizes mechanisms other than a centralized governmental authority.

Some commenters on this blog have wondered whether stories about specific projects were good enough—suggesting that political science needed to make a broader case for its value writ large, or emphasize how NSF funding supports big datasets or graduate education.  I asked this staff person about those things.  He said that stories about specific projects were better and more persuasive (though of course there is no guarantee that they will persuade).

I would like to ask our readers to leave examples of any potentially relevant research projects in comments or send them via email to me or the blog.    I can then forward them on to this staff person.  Some examples, mainly from other social sciences, are in this brochure (pdf) compiled by the NSF itself.

Obviously, there are many other lines of communication currently open between academics, universities, and scholarly associations on the one hand, and legislators on the other.  But individual scholars are best-positioned to identify compelling research.  Please take the time to help if you can.

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Why Some Politicians Stop Buying Votes

The next installment in this week’s presentation of NSF-funded research is this piece from Brown University political scientist Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro.  The importance of the piece is straightforward: vote-buying is alive and well in many countries—including in Latin America, which Weitz-Shapiro focuses on—and the practice subverts democracy in various ways.  So what might lead Latin American politicians to reject this practice?  Weitz-Shapiro provided this summary of her research:

While the practice of buying votes with public goods and services (sometimes known as “patronage” or “clientelism”) has declined in the United States, it is alive and well in many parts of Latin America. But not all public officials rely on patronage.  This study details the circumstances in which city mayors in Latin America will opt out of vote buying.  Two conditions are necessary to get public officials to reject patronage.  First the community must have a large share of higher income voters and second the offices must be politically competitive.  Higher local income means that more voters dislike patronage.  Intense political competition leads politicians to be responsive to these higher income voters. Absent these conditions, clientelism will be common.

Where patronage or clientelism persists, policies are perverted, ballot secrecy is put in doubt, and voters may become disillusioned with democracy.  Latin America has seen some reversals of democracy in recent years, which makes it especially important to understand conditions that may increase the risk of such reversals.

I’d also note that better-functioning governments in places like Latin America serve the economic and national security interests of the United States.

[For more NSF-funded research recently published in the American Journal of Political Science, see here, here, here, and here.]

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Diane Feinstein’s Views of NSF Political Science Funding

A colleague in California sent a letter to both Senators Feinstein and Boxer and received this from Feinstein:

Thank you for writing to express your opposition to Senate Amendment 65 to the fiscal year 2013 continuing appropriations bill.  I appreciate hearing from you and welcome the opportunity to respond.

I believe that advanced research in the social and natural sciences is the bedrock of American innovation, and I am proud that California and its excellent universities have been a leader in this field.  I also agree that the National Science Foundation (NSF) plays an integral part in promoting scientific research and supporting science education.

On March 13, 2013, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced an amendment (S. Amdt. 65) to the Senate Continuing Resolution that bans the use of National Science Foundation funding for political science projects.  However, it is important to note that this amendment was subsequently modified to allow for political science funding that supports the nation’s economy or is in the interest of national security.  Senator Coburn’s modified amendment was agreed to by a voice vote and included in the final version of the Continuing Resolution, which passed the Senate on March 20, 2013 by a vote of 73-26.  The President signed the bill into law on March 26, 2013 (Public Law 113-6).

I understand you support federal funding of the Political Science Program through the National Science Foundation (NSF).  As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, please know that I have made careful note of your support for this program, and will keep your comments in mind as I work with my colleagues in the Senate to pass appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2014.

Once again, thank you for writing.  If you have any additional questions or concerns, please contact my Washington, D.C. office at (202) 224-3841, or visit my website at  Best regards.

Feinstein doesn’t seem too concerned about the language of the Coburn amendment.  My colleague reports that Boxer’s response was a generic form letter acknowledging the contact but saying nothing specific about the issue of the NSF.  The previous response of Tim Kaine is here, and see also the comments.

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How Politics Can Make People Cooperate

Much of politics is about collective action, whereby groups of people need to cooperate in order to produce an outcome.  One of the biggest challenges is getting people to cooperate in providing a public good, which by its nature can be shared by everyone regardless of whether they’ve cooperated in the first place.

One way to enforce cooperation is via some central authority that’s external to the group (like a government).  Another way, prominent in Elinor Ostrom’s work, is via internal policing by peers within the group.

In this NSF-funded study by Guy Grossman and Delia Baldassarri show that a third way can work as well: developing a leadership or authority structure within the group itself.  More importantly, they show that the success of such an authority depends on politics itself.  Leaders need to be elected to induce cooperation.

The study was conducted among Ugandans who are members of farmer organizations and experience directly the challenges of cooperating to produce public goods.  Grossman and Baldassarri not only examined how these people behaved when asked to play a simple “public goods game” in a quasi-laboratory setting, but how they actually behaved within their farmer organization in real life.  In both contexts, members cooperated significantly more when leaders were democratically elected—as was true in one experimental condition of the public goods game—or when they perceived the leadership of their farmer organization as more legitimate.   Grossman and Baldassarri summarize one implication of this finding:

We began by demonstrating experimentally something quite intuitive—that elections increase the value of a local public good. But as we began ruling out options commonly associated with why elections are deemed beneficial, we were left with an important finding. Elections increased the value of local public goods even after we eliminate incumbents’ reelection considerations, and even when we minimize the information voters have on potential candidates, reducing their ability to select more able and more responsive leaders. We found evidence suggesting that something fundamental causes us to be more prosocial when we participate in key political process such as elections. That elections affect not only the behavior of incumbents but also the behavior of constituents who had participated in the electoral process is among the key findings of our study.

It is easy to see why such a study is valuable even by the criteria proposed by Senator Coburn.  Engendering cooperative and pro-social behavior is intrinsic not only to economic productivity—as was true in these farmer organizations—but also to ensuring security and peace.  Granted, this is but one study in one setting, but this research agenda remains fundamental.  Indeed, this agenda is the reason for Ostrom’s Nobel Prize.

[For more in this week’s presentation of NSF-funded research recently published in the American Journal of Political Science, see here, here, and here.]

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APSA Has Hired Lobbyists

Political scientists are about to test some of their research in the field. The American Political Science Association has hired Barbara Kennelly Associates and Maria Freese. The association will lobby on “appropriations for State, Justice, Commerce — to eliminate restrictions on political science funding through the National Science Foundation.”

From Politico, with my link added.  Via Matt Corley.

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