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Playing Politics With Poli Sci

May 11, 2012

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Jeff Flake tried and failed this week to get his colleagues in the House of Representatives to slash the budget of the National Science Foundation, proposing an amendment to a 2013 spending bill that would have cut more than $1 billion from the agency's funds.

But unable to convince his fellow House members that the government needs less research on physics, engineering and other fields, he chose a lower-hanging target: social science studies with easy-to-ridicule titles.

And this time, he was persuasive.

By a vote of 218-208, the House Wednesday night backed an amendment that would bar the NSF from spending any of its 2013 funds on its political science program, which allocated about $11 million in peer-reviewed grants this year. Explaining the amendment on the House floor Wednesday evening, Flake said that given his colleagues' reluctance to slash the agency's overall budget -- the House defeated his earlier amendment by a vote of 291 to 121 -- Congress should ensure, "at the least, that the NSF does not waste taxpayer dollars on a meritless program."

In hunting for programs that the government should not spend its precious dollars on, Flake said, "I can think of few finer examples to cut than the National Science Foundation’s Political Science Program."

The agency is spending more than $80 million, he said, on about 200 active projects -- and three-quarters of those funds, he added, "were directed to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion.... Think about it. Three out of the four of the grants awarded by the NSF Political Science Program go to the wealthiest universities in the country."

More troubling than who received funds from the program is what they were spent on, Flake argued -- before launching into what has become a rite of spring in Washington, in which members of Congress list academic projects whose titles or subjects strike them as unworthy.

Some of the topics that set Flake off seem predictable, given current politics here; "$700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis," for instance.

But in a particularly troubling sign for political scientists and advocates for academic research (including several scholars posting about the bill at the Monkey Cage), several of the projects that Flake singled out for ridicule ("These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them") touch on issues such as whether policy makers do what citizens want, and why young people don't seem interested in going into politics.

"This doesn't look like evidence of the Golden Fleece award problem," said Michael A. Brintnall, executive director of the American Political Science Association, referring to the longstanding tradition of singling out for ridicule research and other pet Congressional projects with insignificant-sounding names or subject matters.

But the projects that Flake cited, and that the NSF program supports, deal with such topics as "national security and the understanding of democracy worldwide," Brintnall said. "These were not goofy titles. This is substantive work. We know there's a sentiment out there that views science and research" with some skepticism, but he admitted to some surprise at how "surgical" Flake's focus on political science was.

Neither was that fact lost on Jennifer Lawless, an associate professor of government at American University and principal investigator on one of the grants cited by Flake. The $301,113 grant, on the topic of "Understanding the Origins of the Gender Gap in Political Ambition," will survey 4,000 high school and college students about their potential interest in running for office, she said, to try to figure out "why young people are not getting involved in politics."

Lawless said she hoped that it was not the title's focus on gender that drew Flake's attention to her study (though she noted that Congress is 83 percent male). But regardless of what attracted his interest, she said, Flake's attack on competitively awarded social science research (and its support by a majority of members of the House) both "undermines the legitimacy of that process" and provides "evidence to suggest that there's a general disregard for things that can produce new knowledge."

The House vote may be nothing more than symbolic; a similar provision would have to appear in whatever appropriations legislation ultimately passes Congress to fund the NSF and other agencies, and survive both a vote in the Democratically controlled Senate and a potential veto by President Obama.

But that makes it no less distressing to scholars like Brintnall and Lawless. The latter did find a bit of humor in the situation, which she said may offer a prime example of why young people (and others) might be turned off to politics. "I may no longer need to conduct my study," she quipped. "This gives us plenty of evidence."

 

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