In Defense of Political Science Spending

By Derek Reinbold

In March Senator Tom Coburn introduced a short amendment to the 2013 spending bill directing the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund only political science research deemed to be vital to national security or domestic economic development. While this did not eliminate all political science funding, the legislation created a complex series of problems for the foundation to address. Rather than running the risk of angering Congress, the NSF decided to discontinue political science grants for the fall cycle. So although the $11-million-a-year program nominally remains open, the NSF will fund no political science research this year.

Supporters of this legislation state that canceling political science funding will free up money to pay for other more important research. Only research that can be demonstrated to be vital to national security or the U.S. economy would be allowed, prohibiting the NSF from “wasting federal resources on political science projects.” 

Yet in terms of real money spent, political science funding is a drop in the bucket. As Congressman Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, who has a Ph.D. in political science, stated on the floor of the House of Representatives, “[political science grant money] represents less than 0.2 percent of the NSF’s research funding, but it is the predominant source of research funding for political scientists in the United States.” Projects that receive grants from the NSF include large research studies like the American National Election Study (ANES), which enables researchers to better understand national election outcomes, producing data that serves thousands of scholars and is used in classrooms all across the country. 

Not all NSF funding was directed towards large-scale research, however. The foundation formerly provided money for dissertation grants, helping to prepare hundreds of graduate students for careers in academia and government. The Ralph Bunche Summer Institute (RBSI), named in honor of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche, was created with a similar objective. The RBSI encouraged students to pursue academic careers in political science and enhanced scholarship through writing workshops, classes, and networking opportunities with prominent academics. Without funding from the NSF, it was forced to discontinue its operations.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Senator Coburn’s amendment is the conception of academic research that it implies. According to the language of the amendment, political science research not directed towards strengthening national security or economic development is a ‘waste of federal resources.’ This perception is troubling both in practice and in theory.

Before the Coburn Amendment, political science research projects were judged based on a stringent merit review process; only the best projects, determined using criteria developed by area experts, were eligible for funding. Under the current law, however, a grant proposal needs to demonstrate a direct link to national security and economic development before even being considered. It is reasonable to assume some research that would have been funded under the past merit review process will no longer be eligible, creating an environment where the best research conducted by political scientists may not be able to proceed.

Imposing limitations on the types of research that may receive funding produces perverse incentives for scholars. The Coburn Amendment may encourage researchers to be deceptive about what their research entails. Christopher Zorn, a professor of political science at Penn State University, recalled reading a grant abstract for a project on gay marriage that did not contain the words “gay” or “marriage” or any related concept.

Karen Beckwith, a professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University and someone familiar with the NSF grant review process, laid out her objection to the legislation succinctly: “For Congress to set the parameters of research subjects – not the funding or its uses, but the topical subject foci of research – both politicizes objective, scientific academic scholarship and trivializes it, with damage to the educational and scholarly heritage of the United States. As one of the very richest countries on earth, the U.S. should be able to continue to fund political science research through the NSF, and we should continue to set the example of such support for other countries.” 

Limiting fields of study for researchers may yield short-term savings, but will invariably hamper education and economic development in the long-term. As David Brooks said, “This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced – by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits.” At the heart of this issue is a debate over the proper role of the federal government. Should the government foster an open and robust cultural dialogue by advancing our understanding of public life in America? Or does government exist only to guarantee security and promote the attainment of wealth? As John Adams once wrote, “There are two types of education… One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.” Perhaps both ends are important.

Derek Reinbold is a senior at Case Western Reserve University, triple majoring in political science, international studies, and art history. Case Western is home to the Alpha of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.