Yesterday the Senate approved a continuing resolution. One of the casualties was NSF funding for political science, at least political science that cannot be certified “as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The amendment was proposed by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) who questioned whether public financing of political science research was truly a good use of taxpayer money. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports:
Mr. Coburn sent a letter last week to the NSF’s director, Subra Suresh, listing a series of agency-financed projects he considered a waste of taxpayer money. His list included several involving political science, including studies of voter attitudes toward the Senate filibuster and of the cooperation between the president and Congress.
Such subjects “may be interesting questions to ponder or explore” but aren’t necessarily the best use of taxpayer money, Mr. Coburn told Mr. Suresh. “Studies of presidential executive power and Americans’ attitudes toward the Senate filibuster hold little promise to save an American’s life from a threatening condition or to advance America’s competitiveness in the world,” he wrote.
As one might expect, the American Political Science Association is not pleased. As Insider Higher Education reports, APSA “called the ban a ‘devastating blow,’ ‘an exceptionally dangerous slippery slope’ and a ‘remarkable embarrassment for the world’s exemplary democracy.’”
I am skeptical. When rank ordering “remarkable embarrassments for the world’s exemplary democracy,” I would place restrictions on NSF funding somewhere near the bottom, particularly when compared with genuine embarrassments like GITMO (which is being considered for a $150 million upgrade despite the President’s promises of its immediate closure) and the use of drones to execute US citizens abroad.
Much (not all) of the research that goes on in political science is quite important and I have enjoyed some relatively modest NSF support in the past (and I appreciated it greatly). But given the constraints on federal research funds and the need to put our fiscal house in order, this seems to be a prudent decision. Many of the decisions that will inevitably come will be devastating blows to citizens who are forced to pay a larger percentage of their income in taxes, extend their working years, and face some form of rationing in health care. In this context, NSF funding seems like relatively small change.