Senator Proposes an End to Federal Support for Political Science

October 07, 2009

A Republican senator stirred up a hornet's nest on Wednesday by introducing an amendment that would cut off money for the National Science Foundation's political-science program.

Sen. Tom A. Coburn, of Oklahoma, offered the amendment when the annual appropriations bill for the Departments of Commerce and Justice and the federal science agencies, HR 2847, went to the Senate floor. A vote on the amendment is possible Thursday but is more likely to come next week.

"Political science would be better left to pundits and voters," said Don Tatro, Senator Coburn's press secretary, in an interview. "Federal research dollars should go to scientists who work on finding solutions for people with severe disabilities, or the next generation of biofuels, or engineering breakthroughs."

The American Political Science Association and other social-science organizations responded on Wednesday with an avalanche of e-mail alerts and Twitter bulletins. "We've tried to mobilize a lot of people very fast," said Michael A. Brintnall, executive director of the political-science association.

Even if Senator Coburn's amendment has slim prospects of passage, Mr. Brintnall said, the mere fact of its introduction is pernicious. Arguments like Senator Coburn's, he said, "start to diminish the value that social science offers to our political and social life, which extends into topics about security and other areas that are vital to the country."

Senator Coburn's office released a seven-page statement that singled out 14 NSF-supported political-science studies as projects that "in reality have little, if anything, to do with science."

The statement implies, without quite saying explicitly, that some of the studies were tainted by left-wing biases. It skeptically quotes from a news release about the Human Rights Data Project, which has been led by scholars at Binghamton University and the University of Memphis.

Hypothesis Testing, or TV Analysis?

One scholar whose work was singled out is Robert C. Lowry, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas who recently conducted a study of how political parties have responded to campaign-finance reforms.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Lowry said that he found the criticism preposterous. He pointed to a passage in Senator Coburn's statement arguing that there is no reason for the government to support the American National Election Studies, a longstanding social-science survey based at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

"The University of Michigan may have some interesting theories about recent elections," the senator's statement reads, "but Americans who have an interest in electoral politics can turn to CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the print media, and a seemingly endless number of political commentators on the Internet."

Mr. Lowry said, "I tell my undergraduate students, There's a difference between arguing over pizza at 3 a.m. and doing actual hypothesis-testing. CNN has a lot of smart people, but at best it's all a very short-term cycle. They chew over the results from last night's election, and by the next week they're on to something else."

Mr. Brintnall added that it seems ironic that Senator Coburn's amendment has arrived just days after the science foundation announced awards to 13 political scientists, among others, for national-security-related social-science projects, as part of a new joint program with the Department of Defense. (Those awards have come under some criticism from social scientists themselves.)

"These are research questions that a secretary of defense who has worked in both administrations has identified as being crucial to national security and understanding our place in the world," Mr. Brintnall said. "Secretary Gates decided that the best way to support this work was to work with the caliber of science that comes out of the NSF."

The political-science program makes up a very small proportion of the NSF's budget. In the 2005 fiscal year—the most recent year for which final data are available—the foundation spent $9.4-million on political-science research,, while the foundation's total research obligations were $3.7-billion.

"You could wipe out all of the political-science research and I doubt you could fund a chemistry lab for two years," Mr. Lowry said. "So the notion that this is holding back progress somewhere else is pretty far-fetched."

This is far from the first time that Congress has entertained proposals to cut federal support for social science. In 1995, a House committee approved a bill that would have eliminated almost all social-science programs at the NSF. And in 2006, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, introduced a similar measure.