May 16, 2012 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Last week, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to a 2013 spending bill that would prohibit the National Science Foundation from devoting any of its budget to its political science program, which, according to Inside Higher Ed, allocated around $11 million in peer-reviewed grants this year. The amendment was the brainchild of Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona, who objected to NSF funding studies that “might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics” without benefiting society. Among the previously funded studies Flake apparently considers to be poor use of taxpayer funds are research on (his descriptions):

  • a new model for international climate change analysis
  • if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do
  • gender and political ambition among high school and college students
  • why political candidates make vague political statements

I actually don’t find Congressman Flake’s singling out of these studies to be as appalling as Senator Coburn’s annual lampooning of NSF-funded projects. Coburn and his colleagues rely heavily on mockery and seem to be willfully obtuse about potential societal benefits of research involving anything that might sound funny to a 12-year-old, laundry-folding robots or Wii-playing septuagenarians. Flake at least acknowledges that political science research has benefits, and his argument is more about considering priorities in tough economic times. But he still does a disservice by advancing the idea that one can evaluate the worth of research study with a glance at its title or abstract.

Federal agencies that distribute grant funding put a great deal of time and energy into determining research priorities and evaluating the merits of the thousands of research proposals they receive. Among the criteria on which proposals are considered are their likely applications — for instance, the possibility that research involving older adults and Wii might identify low-cost ways to help older adults improve their cognition and reduce age-related decline, which could have important implications for Medicare and Medicaid spending as well as less-quantifiable benefits. Respected external researchers volunteer their time to evaluate and discuss proposals in detail, and the grantmaking agencies work hard to ensure that they’re allocating grant dollars wisely. When politicians mockingly list study titles as Flake did, they belittle the extensive thought and effort that agencies and reviewers put into scoring and funding decisions.

Over at The Monkey Cage, which has several excellent posts on the benefits of NSF-funded political science research, Christopher Zorn explains the problem eloquently:

The panelists, ad hoc reviewers, and program officers at NSF operate in a scientific peer review system that is second to none. (During my time at NSF, even the NIH folks often acknowledged that the NSF’s review process was better than theirs). Moreover the funding rate at the NSF’s Political Science program is below 20%; that is, there are four proposals that are declined for every one that is funded. That means that hundreds of very smart people spent thousands of hours evaluating many, many proposals to distribute the funding that Representative Flake finds unnecessary.

The direct implication of the Flake amendment is that we should substitute his judgment for all of those individuals’, regarding the merits of both the work that has been funded to date and all potential future work that NSF might fund in our field. It is hard to believe that anyone would take seriously such a call to substitute political for scientific judgment if the program in question was physics, or computer science, or even economics. But even if we grant that Representative Flake may have some degree of expertise in political science that qualifies him to pass judgment on the projects that have received support, are we also to believe that (a) there was nothing that should have been funded in previous years, and that (b) there will never be any political science research in the future that merits NSF support?

More broadly (and as I allude to on the ELS blog), the precedent this sets is seriously dangerous. The idea that individual members of Congress should sit in judgment over individual programs of scientific research opens up the possibility of the politicization of the scientific process by people across the political spectrum. This is of course not limited to NSF: NIH, NIJ, DOD, etc. could all see their research arms’ funding compromised by legislators looking to make some political hay. Don’t approve of homosexuality? Defund Prevention Science at DAR/NIMH. Against contraception? Get rid of CRH at NICHD. And so forth.

I hope the Senate will have more respect for the NSF’s ability to allocate research funding appropriately, and insist on a spending bill without Congressman Flake’s problematic prohibition on political science research.

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