WASHINGTON -- Supporters of social science breathed a sigh of relief last week when Congress effectively repealed strict limits on how the National Science Foundation could fund certain types of political science research.
The omnibus appropriations bill that Congress passed and the President signed into law last week did not include the controversial provision that had, for more than nine months, restricted NSF funding for political science to only projects that directly promoted national security and U.S. economic interests.
Many social science advocates hailed the change as a victory, especially as the key lawmaker pushing the rule announced his retirement from Congress. But several of the people who push for social science research in Washington say that the political science restrictions were just part of what they see as a broader assault on federal support for those disciplines.
Although efforts to cut or restrict funding of social and behavioral science research have, for decades, tended to ebb and flow in Congress, the fact that the political science restrictions actually made it into law last year “sort of rocked the community to the core,” said Wendy A. Naus, the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, an umbrella lobbying group representing dozens of disciplinary associations, scientific societies, and some individual universities.
“It’s a wake-up call that everyone is vulnerable,” Naus said.
Congress first adopted the restrictions on NSF funding for political science research last March as part of an amendment, sponsored by Senator Tom Coburn, to a large budget bill. While Coburn, a Republican, has long sought to end federal funding of political science -- a taxpayer expense that he says should not be a priority during a period of austere budgets -- many observers were caught off guard by the last-minute adoption of his amendment into the bill.
The passage of the provision also thrust the American Political Science Association into a full-fledged fight on Capitol Hill to which it was largely unaccustomed. The membership organization of more than 15,000 professors who study government and politics for a living found itself in the position of having to analyze its own political clout in Washington and plot a strategy to reverse the restrictions.
John H. Aldrich, a professor of political science at Duke University who is president of APSA, said that attacks from politicians on the discipline have long “been a part of the consciousness.”
He said his very first NSF-funded political science research on the presidential nomination system was the runner-up in the 1970s for then-Representative William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award that highlighted examples of what the Wisconsin Democrat viewed as government waste. Aldrich joked that his first-place loss -- to a researcher who was studying the mating habits of butterflies -- has weighed on him during his entire career as an NSF researcher. He most recently serves on the chair of the board of directors for the American National Elections Study, which receives funding from the agency.
But with the type of populist rhetoric from Washington that rejects such research actually turned into law, APSA debated over how to proceed, eventually opting to hire a lobbying firm -- an unusual step for the organization.
Aldrich said that since the Coburn amendment made its way into the previous appropriations bill at the last minute, the group wanted to have a presence on Capitol Hill to stop that from happening again.
The group sought to make its voice heard as appropriators met behind closed doors over the holidays to negotiate funding for different parts of the budget. APSA, according to public disclosures, spent $48,000 in the second half of 2013 in hiring Barbara Kennelly Associates, a two-person lobbying firm led by Kennelly, a former congresswoman from Connecticut.
The goal in hiring Kennelly, Aldrich said, was “to ensure that someone was there with access to Senator [Barbara] Mikulski,” Aldrich said, referring to the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Beyond the direct lobbying, Aldrich said the APSA sought to band to together with other scholarly groups as well as organizations like COSSA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Our strategy was to have a broad front,” he said. The message to other groups was “Sure, today it’s political science, but tomorrow it’s social and behavioral sciences, and then it’s all of NSF.”
Institutions and other associations also rallied to the cause. The Association of American Universities attacked the political science restrictions, calling them "disturbing” developments that sought to “relegate such research to a second-class status in federal research funding” and “stigmatize entire disciplines of research.”
Nearly a dozen individual universities also dispatched their representatives to the Capitol to fight against the restrictions. Among the institutions lobbying on the issue last year, according to public disclosure forms, were the University of Michigan, the University of Northern Iowa, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Oregon, and Eastern Michigan University (through the lobbying firm Van Scoyoc Associates).
Joyce A. Rechtschaffen, who directs Princeton University’s government affairs office, also lobbied against the amendment. She said the strategy was largely to engage in a “big education effort” on Capitol Hill.
In addition to sharing specific stories of the political science research at Princeton, she said that part of the pitch involved explaining to members of Congress and their staffs “that you can’t always look at the title of research and know what that research is about, and how when basic research starts off you don’t know what it’s going to lead to.”
Steve Smith, the executive director of APSA, said that the fight over the Coburn amendment has been a “turning point” for the group and caused it to rethink its advocacy strategy.
“The lessons that we’ve learned the past nine months, I think, is that we have to have a continued presence on Capitol Hill -- whether that’s through coalitions, through our staff, or through working with lobbying firms where it’s appropriate,” he said. “It’ll be an ongoing effort.”
Exactly how APSA plans to change the way it advocates in Washington has yet to be determined, Smith said, adding that it will be a key issue as the organization begins a new strategic planning process this year. The group has also formed a public engagement task force aimed at addressing, in part, its federal advocacy role, he said.
It’s hard to tell whether the restoration of NSF funding for all types of political science research in the legislation passed last week was the direct result of a successful lobbying and organizing campaign or merely the hurried budget process. Congress had only a month to negotiate and then pass a massive bill to fund the entire federal government before a stop-gap measure was to expire, making it difficult for any lawmaker to attach a policy rider to the bill at the last minute. Appropriators, for instance, kept out of the legislation controversial provisions pertaining to President Obama’s health care law.
A spokesman for Coburn, Aaron Fobes, said in an email that it was unfortunate that “a full debate on this issue” did not take place last week, citing the fact that the legislation was “hashed out behind closed doors” and that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did not allow amendments to be considered.
Nonetheless, he said, Coburn was “troubled that Congress again allowed scarce scientific research funding to go to lower-priority political science studies.”
It is clear though, advocates for research funding say, that even though Coburn is not seeking re-election after this year, the threat to federal social science research remains.
“This is something that the community is going to stay vigilant on in 2014,” said Naus, the head of the social science consortium. “Our antennae are up.”
She said the next budget process for the fiscal year beginning this October and the upcoming reauthorization of the America Competes Act, which provides the statutory authority for the NSF, both provide openings for lawmakers who are interested in placing additional conditions on certain types of research or even restructuring the NSF entirely.
Read more by
Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed
What Others Are Reading