Defunding Political Science Research is the Wrong Kind of Big Government

Mar 26, 2013Elizabeth Pearson

By cutting off research funding for ideological reasons, Republicans in Congress have turned themselves into thought police.

In a vote last Wednesday, the U.S. Senate took the unprecedented step of prohibiting the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding political science research, except on topics “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The amendment’s sponsor, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, frames the defunding of political science research as part of a broader deficit-reduction agenda, but in fact his approach to shrinking government only perpetuates the worst sort of big government: the kind that polices the ideas it doesn’t like.

Although the amendment’s passage came as somewhat of a surprise to observers — Republicans in Congress are long-time foes of political science, but previous efforts to limit NSF funding have been unsuccessful — scientists from a host of disciplines have been quick to condemn the dangerous implications of the vote.

The arguments against this assault on basic science research are many. The funding is a tiny portion of the federal budget but supports a huge portion of political science work. NSF-funded research in political science supports robust public debate by collecting comprehensive, high-quality data that is then accessible to the public and journalists. And, although some political scientists have expressed optimism that almost any piece of research could be framed to fall under the new mandate, Gregory Koger noted in a piece on The Monkey Cage the particular irony that “in order to receive support for careful scientific testing of causal claims one might have to make unsubstantiated claims about how one’s research is linked to U.S. economic or security interests.”

But the greatest harm done by the Senate’s approval of this amendment comes in the type of government that it promotes. The National Science Foundation represents exactly the type of “big government” worth embracing: a government that champions robust public investment in the advancement of knowledge while demanding that these knowledge claims be rigorously tested and peer-reviewed in order to deserve public dollars. NSF grants in political science clearly meet these standards, even funding the work of Nobel Prize laureates such as Elinor Ostrom. In an ironic testament to their democracy enhancing effects, NSF political science grants even helped produce some excellent research on congressional oversight cited by none other than Tom Coburn, who is apparently a fan of federally funded political science research when it serves his interests.

In fact, Coburn’s anti-science agenda represents the sort of big government actually worth fighting against. While cloaking their effort to starve political science research funding as a struggle against wasteful spending, Coburn and other Republicans who share his agenda promote a government that polices knowledge production and attacks ideas it finds threatening. (Coburn is particularly opposed to research on American’s attitudes toward the Senate, which he seems to think require no additional study, stating in his own press release on the amendment’s passage, “There is no reason to spend $251,000 studying Americans’ attitudes toward the U.S. Senate when citizens can figure that out for free.”)

Of course, Republicans attacking political science are quick to claim they support government investment in other types of science — the kind that can cure cancer and doesn’t criticize Congress in the process. This selectivity about which ideas should be supported and which are simply wasteful is short-sighted given the practical benefits of such research. But singling out specific types of research for divestment is more troubling for its ideological implications than for its practical flaws.

As a Nature editorial from last summer argued, when moves to cut off political science funding sponsored by Representative Jeff Flake were making their way through the House, “The fact that he [Flake] and his political allies seem to feel threatened by evidence-based studies of politics and society does not speak highly of their confidence in the objective case for their policies. Flake's amendment is no different in principle to the ideological infringements of academic freedom in Turkey or Iran. It has nothing to do with democracy.”

There are debates worth having about the value of academic research in society, and even about the merits of publicly funding particular research agendas. Clearly policymakers have a responsibility to argue over how to invest public funds most effectively. But let’s be clear: politicians are not interested in engaging in such a debate. The amendment cutting off NSF political science funding was included in a continuing resolution passed to avoid a government shutdown and passed by a voice vote. The whole story would be comical — Congress using arcane procedure studied only by political scientists to defund political science research — if it weren’t so troubling.

Such a move isn’t part of Congress’s legitimate role overseeing federal spending. Rather, it speaks to a willingness on the part of politicians to let ideological opponents of important research strengthen the kind of government we should all be worried about: one that decides in advance what kinds of ideas are worth public investment.

Elizabeth Pearson is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley.

 

Capitol dome image via Shutterstock.com.

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