Take That, Political Science!

AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson

Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma and author of legislation designed to cut off the vast majority of federal support for political-science research

This week, ten years after swearing to destroy Saddam Hussein and build democracy in Iraq, the United States took a step toward dismantling its investment in studying how democracy works. 

For more than 15 years, congressional Republicans have been trying to do away with federal funding for political-science research. Every time until now, political scientists successfully fought back. One reason they could: The pot designated for political science in the National Science Foundation (NSF) was a tiny percentage of overall research money—about $10 million out of a $7 billion budget. That's less than two-tenths of a percent. But it's also the majority of total grant funding for political-science research. The field provides us with much of what we know about how democracies, including our own, function (and don't function). Political scientists study how and why opinions change on key issues, what motivates people to vote, and how public opinion influences elected officials. For a relatively small sum, the nation that loves to tout its democratic ideals has been funding projects to investigate how that democracy works (and doesn't).

Last May, when House Republicans passed an amendment by Congressman Jeff Flake to stop funding the NSF’s Political Science Program, Senate Democrats stopped it from going anywhere. Even New York Times columnist David Brooks got agitated by Flake's selective targeting of the program, arguing, “This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced—by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits.” (If he's like most political journalists, Brooks uses plenty of NSF-funded data.)

But tucked inside the 600-page continuing resolution the Senate passed on Wednesday afternoon—the measure that must pass to avoid a government shutdown—is an amendment from Republican Senator Tom Coburn, designed to cut off the vast majority of federal support for political-science research. The amendment prevents the National Science Foundation from funding its Political Science Program, “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.” 

Perhaps most surprising, the resolution passed by a voice vote, meaning there was no real opposition from Democrats. It's quite a turnabout. Democrats have long supported research grants for the social sciences. When Coburn introduced a similar amendment in 2009, Democrat Barbara Mikulski went on the offensive: “This amendment is an attack on science. It is an attack on academia,” she said. “We need full funding to keep America innovative.”

But this time around, Senator Mikulski, as appropriations chair, was shepherding a difficult piece of legislation through the body as Republicans threatened a government shutdown. Democratic leaders were afraid that if Coburn didn't get his way on the amendment, he would slow down the continuing resolution. That might have doomed the thing, with Congress headed to recess. Instead, it seems Coburn modified his original amendment to assuage the Democrats. His new language permitted the NSF to allow exceptions for political projects that "promote national security or the economic interests" of the country. Instead of cutting the $10 million allotted for the Political Science Program, the measure simply prohibits grants in political science. The NSF gets to keep the money for other purposes.

“It reflects the nature of the Senate more than it reflects any shifting views or shifting support,” says Thomas Mann, political scientist and congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. “If there were a [roll call] vote on this, it never would have passed.” The House has already shown its support for a similar measure. The die has been cast, at least in the short term. Democrats will have a chance to undo the measure in October, when Congress will need to pass another budget for the next fiscal year.

The American Political Science Association called the decision “a devastating blow to the integrity of the scientific process." That’s not overstating things, even if $10 million looks like a drop (if that) in the national budgetary bucket. If you care about scientific process generally, it's not hard to see why the amendment is an ominous portent for other NSF programs. Growing up as the daughter of a political scientist who received several NSF grants, I was well aware of their importance, not only to political-science research but to the social sciences in general. Fields like sociology, psychology, and economics also rely heavily on NSF funding—and could also fall victim to the whims of an influential member of Congress. What if Senator Coburn next decides that sociological studies of gender and homophobia are frivolous? House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has already expressed his support for getting rid of funding for all social-science research, even though the combined budget for those programs is less than 3 percent of total NSF funding.

The situation could easily spread further, into the many parts of the hard sciences that are just as easily politicized—say, evolutionary biology or climate change. When the Flake amendment entered the House, the science magazine Nature wrote an editorial detailing the threat to all fields: “Scientists should ask themselves which vulnerable research programme could be next on the hit list,” the piece read. “The idea that politicians should decide what is worthy of research is perilous.”

Second, political-science research is important. NSF funds a number of major projects that inform much of how we understand our system. For instance, for decades, the Political Science Program has funded the National Election Study, a multimillion-dollar project run out of the University of Michigan. The data, freely available to anyone, provides the most comprehensive look at how American political opinion has changed over time on key issues. Through the study, we can track the evolution of partisan identification, public opinion, and a variety of other key issues over decades. The findings are used by journalists and campaigns, and they're used to train undergraduates and graduate students in research. If the study ceases, there will suddenly be no way to see long-term trends in the American electorate. 

Other Political Science Program studies have investigated questions that are important to our functioning democracy but not particularly easy to raise money for—like gender gaps in political ambition or how responsive elected officials really are to public opinion. Furthermore, the research has helped develop a number of statistical and methodological tools, like computer-assisted interviewing, which has since become standard in private-sector research.

Without NSF, many of these projects may go unfunded. Political-science research, like most academic research, relies on outside funding. Universities pay professors’ salaries and offer basic infrastructure—the buildings in which the research can take place, for instance—but most of the actual dollars for research come from grants. NSF funds 61 percent of political-science research. “There are other opportunities out there” for funding, says John McIver, who ran NSF’s Political Science Program in the mid-1990s. "But there are no pots as big as the NSF program. It’s going to be hard for big political science to continue."

Why would political science be singled out for cuts in the first place? Coburn says he opposes the funding because the $10 million spent on political science takes away $10 million from studies of diseases or other causes deemed more worthy. In a letter to the director of the National Science Foundation earlier this month, he argued, “Discontinuing funding for these types of studies will increase our ability to fund research into basic fields of mathematics and science such as engineering, biology, physics, and technology.”

Of course, the National Science Foundation has a number of programs that have no direct economic or medical benefits. Physicists spend millions studying dark matter; not only have some of those studies failed to reach a conclusion but the research has no impact on most of our lives. Political-science research also makes its way into Congress—as the political scientist John Sides noted in 2011, even Coburn hasn’t let his opposition to NSF’s political-science grants stop him from relying on NSF-funded political-science research when the research bolsters his own positions. In one debate, he cited NSF-funded research to demonstrate the lack of congressional oversight of the Government Accountability Office.

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. “Members of Congress don’t like research being done about members of Congress,” McIver says. “In a world in which Congress has an 11-percent approval rate, Congress is not happy to know there’s research being done specially on that topic.” As if to prove his point, Senator Coburn has repeatedly insisted that there’s no need to fund studies of the GOP's use of the  filibuster. It just so happens that many political scientists are eager to examine how the tool has been used (if not abused) under the current Republican leadership in the Senate.

Coburn's attempt to stifle political science probably won't succeed for long. Democrats are expected to restore the status quo by next October. But the fact that this decision was made at all is worrying. Flake, Coburn, and Cantor aren’t likely to let this go, especially now that they've had a taste of success.

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