Apologies to Comic Book Guy (if you have to look it up…).
Senator Tom Coburn is a patient man. Over three years ago he started on a quest to defund federal political science research, which is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Yesterday he succeeded.
In part because of the persistent failure of Congress to deal with a budget in anything resembling a rational process, the Senate was under pressure to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year (ending September 30). The current funding runs out next week, when Congress leaves town for Easter. Senator McCain (a fellow fan of sound-bite science research criticism) joined Senator Coburn in supporting the amendment, which passed by a voice vote (it would likely not have passed a roll call vote). Those who follow Congressional maneuvering more closely than I find it likely that the timing of the continuing resolution, and the need to address other budgetary pressures, made it necessary to cave to Coburn’s demands on this matter.
The amendment initially would shift $7 million in political science research funding directly to cancer research (the bill had to be revenue-neutral). Thankfully the likely disciplinary funding fight was averted. The revised amendment requires that any political research funded by the NSF be certified by the Director “as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”
How’s that for your broader impacts criteria?
Coburn is on record as thinking political science research is, essentially, not science. That the move would save $13 million is secondary to him. He doesn’t consider politics as something that needs research, as he put it back in 2009.
“Whatever jobs and products are created as a result of NSF spending would best serve the taxpayer if they were within the field of practical rather than political science, which really is not science at all.”
“Theories on political behavior are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties, and the voters”
This kind of thinking is comparable to those who think we can get rid of the National Weather Service because The Weather Channel and other TV sources can handle the work. Guess where they get the underlying data on which to place their models.
Coburn raised similar criticisms after his amendment passed, suggesting that voters didn’t need anyone to tell them what they thought of the Senate filibuster. Never mind the likely possibility that most voters don’t know that the modern filibuster bears little resemblance to the climactic scene of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Coburn occasionally shows flashes of comprehending the need for effective management of research spending. His work on a cancer research bill encouraged a level of government oversight in almost complete opposition to what he obtained with this amendment. Ultimately his analyses and rhetoric fail to demonstrate an abiding concern for or understanding of the value of research. That he’s a medical doctor just makes it all the more maddening.
It’s possible, but as yet unknown, that Senate Democrats felt that holding firm against the first version on the amendment and getting a better deal for NSF in the final budget (it now has some flexibility on how to implement spending cuts, a non-trivial thing in this budget climate).
But opening this door, even just a bit, allows Senator Coburn and others to push forward with their narrow conception of what science the federal government should fund. The NSF is up for re-authorization this year, and I would not be surprised to see efforts to remove any and all social science funding (which would include science and technology policy research) from the agency’s authority.
So, do watch for that bill, and keep an eye out for the next continuing resolution this fall, probably very late September. Congress will fail to pass a budget, so it is going to be important to make sure both the non-passed budget and the have-to-pass continuing resolution don’t have any similar amendments.
It’s not too early to start hectoring – and educating – your elected representatives. Let’s face it. If they succeed in eliminating federal support for research in one field (NSF funds the vast majority of political science research in the U.S.) because it’s seen as ‘soft’ or not connected to national security or economic concerns, no field is safe from the budget ax.
Not that they ever were safe.
The current state of affairs makes it more important for scientists to explain the value of their work in terms that people who might want to give money can understand. What kind of understanding does your research seek? What questions are you trying to answer? How does that affect me and/or my interests? Always be ready to answer me those questions three.