No Need For Partisan Glasses To Read The Flake Amendment

A science policy cliché identified by Daniel Sarewitz is that science (and technology) policy is really just science and technology budget policy.  A likely consequence of this cliché is the occasional collective freak-out over legislative moves that could affect the research budget but often don’t go anywhere.

The latest collective freakout is over the Flake Amendment, which, if it makes its way into the budget, would end support for political science research at the National Science Foundation (NSF).  If it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been tried before. Yes, it got a little further along this time, but I don’t expect it will survive intact into the final budget.

I only mention it because it seems that this success has tipped some into drinking the Mooney potion that perceives cuts to science as a strictly partisan affair.  In particular, Michael Lubell, a physicist and director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, sees this line-item dance as another nail in the coffin of bipartisan support for science.

I’ve never seen this bipartisan support as necessarily strong, nor have I supported the Mooney crusade to paint ‘science attacks’ in partisan terms.  But where Lubell seems to think the weakness is in the bipartisan, I see it in the support.  Another hypotheses as to why there has been less support for science funding is the increasing focus on budget cutting.  At least, cutting the budget in areas that aren’t the ones favored by the representatives in question.  Given the hard cuts facing Congress due to its last bout of incompetence, there are many efforts to try and wriggle out of that commitment.  To do that, members like Rep. Flake are looking for what they see as easy targets.

Frankly, I’m not convinced that viewing this issue through a partisan lens makes much sense.  It seems even less productive than worrying over the amendment.  If you look at how such a debate played out in The Washington Post today between two partisan writers, it did a much better job of identifying the salient political arguments than Lubell did.  While Charles Lane makes many missteps in his arguments (including the old trope about social sciences not really being science), he doesn’t fail in identifying an important point – that deciding what kind of research the government funds is a political choice.

“The relevant question, however, is whether society could have reaped equal or greater benefits through other uses of the money — and how unreasonable it would be to ask the political scientists to rely on non-federal support.”

I likely disagree with Lane (and Flake) on the answers to these questions, but there is nothing wrong with asking them.  Jonathan Bernstein, in his response, focuses on the answers, and not the whether the questions are legitimate.

Bottom line – Representative Flake things other things are more worth the government’s money than supporting political science research.  He fits into a press-friendly tradition of folks that make that argument, usually through the sound-bite criticisms fancied by Democratic Senator William Proxmire back in the 1980s.  One may object to Flake’s methods and/or arguments, but the question is legitimate, and persistent.

Now if only we could come up with some good answers.  Unfortunately, that’s a different set of freak-outs.  And adding party labels doesn’t help anyone who’s not trying to rile up supporters (or sell some books).

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