WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted Wednesday to bar the use of National Science Foundation funds for political science research not deemed essential to national security or economic interest. Lawmakers also voted to protect military tuition assistance programs from budget cuts, ensuring that tuition dollars for active-duty members of the military will continue to flow.
Both measures were amendments to a budget bill that would fund the federal government through the end of September, and both overcame seeming defeat to be included in the final measure. (The House of Representatives must vote on the final package for it to become law, a vote that must take place before March 27 to avoid a government shutdown, but there is no reason to believe it will not include the two amendments.)
The amendment defunding political science was adopted in a voice vote that surprised many observers. Ending federal funding for political science research has been a longtime cause  for some Republicans in Congress, including the measure’s sponsor, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, and the effort has failed many times in the past.
The amendment allows the government to pay for political science research only if the director of the National Science Foundation certifies the research as “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The remaining money will be used to pay for other federal research programs.
The vote drew an immediate reaction from the American Political Science Association, which called the ban a “devastating blow,” “an exceptionally dangerous slippery slope” and a “remarkable embarrassment for the world’s exemplary democracy.”
“The amendment places unprecedented restriction on the national research agenda by declaring the political science study of democracy and public policy out of bounds,” the group said in the strongly worded statement.
Barry Toiv, vice president for government relations at the Association of American Universities, called the amendment a “disappointing restriction on political science research,” although he said it could have been worse. (Previous versions would not have allowed an exception process, and would have redirected the money to deficit reduction rather than to additional research in other areas.) The funding ban is also short-term: by October, Congress will need to pass another budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
“Our leaders at the state and national level are always striving to improve our democracy, but without the good work of political scientists, they have little solid analysis to guide their efforts,” Toiv said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “Moreover, this is competitive research that goes through NSF’s rigorous merit review process. We start down a slippery slope when we seek to end support for particular areas of research.”
Tuition Assistance Program Restored
Another amendment, also passed on a voice vote, would restore tuition assistance to all branches of the military. The Defense Department’s comptroller had recommended “significant reductions” in the program as the department adjusts to the mandatory budget cuts that went into effect March 1.
Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard had all cut funding  for the program and frozen new applications. Hundreds of thousands of service members receive benefits through tuition assistance, which covers educational costs for active-duty members of the military.
The measure, sponsored by Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a Republican, and North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat, doesn’t specify how the Defense Department will cover the costs of tuition assistance with a tighter budget. It requires the department to restore full funding to the program for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.