First, a full confession: I’ve never really been a big fan of political science. I love politics and have worked in politics, but as an undergraduate I double-majored in astronomy (i.e., real science) and history (i.e., real historical research). My recollection is that historians in particular took a pretty dim view of political science back then. While historians went to great lengths to research, investigate, and write carefully and thoughtfully without drawing conclusions (quite unlike some popular historians who are really part novelist, part historian), political scientists relished their role of observing current events, drawing sweeping conclusions, and buttressing these conclusions with numbers.
So, when the US House of Representatives recently passed a budget amendment that scolded political scientists for not really being scientists and cut off their funding from the National Science Foundation, I confess that a part of my psyche was initially in full agreement. I was educated to say, “well, of course.” This amendment to House Bill 2563 (the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2013), introduced by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and passed largely along party lines on May 9th, would limit the ability of the National Science Foundation to fund political science research. H2563 has now moved on to the Senate where it is currently awaiting further action. In budget matters the House and Senate need to reconcile their separate versions of the federal budget before voting on a final omnibus bill, so Rep. Flake’s amendment may or may not survive, and we probably won’t know its fate until late this year or early next year.
This isn’t the first salvo ever fired at science research, of course, and it probably won’t be the last either. And on its surface, Rep. Flake’s action is justified: in our era of budget austerity it’s only fair that every expenditure be reexamined (as well as every revenue measure, many would argue).
But after my initial reaction wore off, reality set in. Why did Flake’s legislation make so many social scientists so worried? Because it was audacious, essentially branding an entire field of science as illegitimate and condemning it to a slow death through lack of funding. It’s one thing for an individual like me to have reservations and misapprehensions. We’re a product of our environments, and my environment back in college was scientists and historians, not political scientists. It’s quite another thing for a legislator like Flake (who, ironically, has a masters degree in political science; his alma matter must be proud!) to assume that his reservations are based in fact and are not just personal bias, and to then act on those reservations without careful consideration. Whatever Flake thinks about political science, based in fact or bias, the downstream effect of his legislation is that without research opportunities this field will stop attracting scholars. The NSF’s social science budget is only about 1% of its total budget but this money provides two-thirds of federal support for basic academic research in the social sciences. The impact of this cut will vary by school—about half of the political science research budget at UCLA comes from NSF grants, for instance—but some political science departments will essentially cease to exist because tenure is closely tied to journal publishing. Without scholars, the field won’t be able to advance knowledge or teach undergraduates. Hence, it may slowly wither. Is this what America really wants? What’s the next target? Climate science? Genetics? HIV/AIDS research? I can’t imagine that this was the intended consequence of Flake’s legislation. We can give him the benefit of the doubt here.
But why, then, did he introduce this amendment? Ostensibly, Rep. Flake is looking for waste in the federal budget and he simply opened his playbook to the time-honored tactic of picking on something that sounds wasteful as a way to drum up support for his cause—the $900 toilet seat tactic that opponents of defense spending occasionally dredge up. But is there more? Maybe he has an axe to grind on a particular issue?—climate change, for instance, or Ivy League schools, or anti-intellectualism in general. These are all issues that members of the conservative right have picked on in recent years, and it’s not beyond the pale to suspect that one or all of these issues are being pursued via this amendment as well. After all, Flake introduced his amendment by first condemning NSF funding for a new model of international climate change analysis. Further into his argument, he questioned what constitutes scientific research and who should pay for this research, and insinuated that well-off schools don’t need federal research dollars. So the script matches up pretty well.
Do we really want our politicians making these sorts of decisions without a great deal more deliberation and expert analysis? Alas, lawmaking doesn’t always work that way. So in the world of off-the-cuff reasoning, is it fair to differentiate political science research from, say, physics research? Is it fair to say that our government only wants to fund research that seeks absolute truth and nothing less? No. Congress cancelled funding for the superconducting supercollider (SSC) back in 1993. The reasoning then was that this project was too expensive and that the value it would return to science knowledge was disproportionate to the costs. Of course, now that the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva is poised to make the same earth-shaking discovery that American scientists using the SSC could have made ten years ago, discovering the most fundamental particle in the universe—the Higgs boson—that decision is looking a little suspect. Still, Congress needs to make cost-benefit calculations when it decides what to fund.
So what about political science versus the other social sciences? Is there something about political science that causes it to be singled out like this? It’s not pure science—that’s not news—but then neither is psychology, sociology, ethnography, archaeology, economics, and many areas of health research. Regardless of its predicative value, social science research helps us better understand the human world we inhabit. Will this research ever lead to a unified theory of human behavior capable of predicting world events and economic outcomes? Probably not. But will we learn a lot about humans and society along with way? Absolutely. And would this research be done regardless of federal funding—funded by endowment money instead as Rep. Flake suggests? Certainly not as much of it. Very little research funding comes from endowments and very few researchers have access to such funds in the first place—most higher-education institutions have no endowments whatsoever. For those that do, endowments aren’t large pots of money that colleges can spend indiscriminately. They are private gifts—not always in cash, and often times with strings attached—intended for the long-term support of non-profit institutions. On an annual basis, most universities that have endowments spend about 5% of their values annually, which protects the long-term value of these investments. In the case of Harvard, which Flake complained is receiving federal research dollars despite being in the billion dollar endowment club (the size of Harvard’s endowment is actually around $32 billion), their fund contributes about $1.5 billion annually back to university, covering about one-third of the school’s operating budget. Yale’s endowment is the country’s second largest at around $19 billion. The median endowment size is $90 million and generates about $4.5 million per school per year in spendable dollars.
So here’s the other damning accusation in Flake’s argument: that “…three-quarters of these awards under this program for political science research, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities that have endowments greater than $1 billion.” Ivy League, right? No. There are actually around 73 colleges across the country with endowments this large. If we assume for the sake of argument that each of these institutions received an equal share of the $46 million in political science research funds at issue here, that’s $630,000 per institution. Really? Is this congressional amendment that would hobble the entire field of political science really about $630,000 for 73 colleges that happen to have large endowments? What if these colleges just paid the government $630,000 each? Would that settle the score? Aren’t we really just being anti-intellectual here—using the size of endowments as a code word for “successful liberal northeast college” when in fact there is no single geographic or ideological category for these top 73, which span the dial from public universities in the west to private colleges in Texas and the midwest? Furthermore, aren’t we just punishing successful colleges for their efforts to hire top faculty and attract research dollars, and also raise endowments that help them become financially stable and independent? Large endowments don’t just magically appear. Colleges have to work hard for these funds and alumni need to step up big-time to invest in the future promise of institutions. Is this how we say “well done?”
Conservatives often speak of the need to avoid picking winners and losers in the marketplace, but demonstrating bias against certain research institutions and areas of research is doing exactly that. When Congress reaches into agencies to override the funding decisions made by experts, it is substituting its political judgment for decisions made through highly competitive and rigorous selection processes. The NSF is not alone in this predicament—Congress routinely reaches into agency budgets to fund pet projects, eliminate funding for hated projects, change policies, and more. As keepers of the purse, it’s their prerogative. The Flake amendment wouldn’t reduce NSF funding; it only handcuffs the ability of the agency to spend this funding on political science research.
Perhaps the question Congress should be asking is not “why doesn’t the market pay for this research if it’s really so valuable?” but “can we get by without the knowledge that this federally-funded research is providing?” In the case of this amendment, the climate change work mentioned by Rep. Flake would be affected; so would census work and a host of other important data-gathering efforts and methodologies used by agencies to help make our government more responsive and accountable, improve voter turnout, and much more. Whether cost-cutting or ideology (or both) are the driving forces here, wouldn’t it be simpler and less destructive for Congress to simply single out the projects it can’t justify funding rather than abolishing an entire field of research? We need to ask this question with our collective noses plugged, of course—the prospect of wide-scale tampering with grant funding decisions is unconscionable. But controlling federal spending is the main job of Congress, and anyone who has watched Congress over the years knows that spending fights are the norm and that many projects get stuck in the cross-hairs. One year it’s arts funding for PBS, NPR, or Robert Mapplethorpe. Another year it’s funding for the space station or the superconducting supercollider, or NIH funding for HIV/AIDS research.
With such power at its disposal one would hope that Congress always exercises its duties with due diligence and that cooler heads always eventually prevail. Congress has lost most of its cooler heads over the last few decades, though. The partisan rancor that now exists doesn’t inspire confidence, nor does what often seems to be a partisan bias against science— issues like climate change research and stem cell research, for instance. Some would argue that this bias simply reflects the broader attitudes of the American public. Others would argue that these attitudes flow downhill from our elected leaders and their rhetoric. Either way, unfortunately, since this lack of understanding about science is fairly widespread now in public opinion, the constituency that gets up-in-arms about funding cuts for research is much smaller and less passionate than the constituency that gets aroused when cuts are proposed for public television.
Let’s take a closer look at the projects singled out by Rep. Flake as being wasteful. Here is how he described them on the floor of the House:
Here are the facts about these projects, as summarized in the NSF website:
So is this research worthy of federal funding? This is a decision best left up to the NSF, which is in a much better position to determine the relative scientific merits of research projects than our members of Congress, no disrespect intended. But it is obviously real research and not the cartoonish waste described by Rep. Flake on the floor of the House.
We also need to make sure we’re looking at the bigger picture here. The impact of advancing science aside—which is a pretty big aside—research spending has significant multiplier and spillover effects for our economy, particularly for some areas of research and for some regions of our country. Research is a good investment in a down economy, and an even better investment in a robust economy. Jobs are created, innovation is spun-off, and the foundations are laid for long-term benefits to science and society. Budget oversight is an important function, but exercising this authority requires a firm understanding of the issues and proposing fixes to the budget requires different solutions for different problems. This is especially true for science research—my bias, but also a fact.
Here is the full text of the May 9th House discussion on Rep. Flake’s amendment to H2563 as it appears in the Congressional Record:
Mr. FLAKE. Mr. Chairman, I have an amendment at the desk, designated as No. 3.
The Acting CHAIR. The Clerk will report the amendment.
The Clerk read as follows:
Page 101, after line 10, insert the following new section:
Sec. 542. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation.
The Acting CHAIR. The gentleman from Arizona is recognized for 5 minutes.
Mr. FLAKE. Mr. Chairman, this amendment would prohibit the National Science Foundation from using taxpayer dollars to fund political science research.
To be clear, my amendment does not reduce funding for the NSF. Earlier in consideration of this bill, I offered an amendment that would reduce NSF funding. This amendment is simply oriented toward ensuring, at the least, that the NSF does not waste taxpayer dollars on a meritless program.
The Nation is closing in on a $16 trillion debt; deficit, more than $1.3 trillion. Nearly 40 cents of every dollar we spend is borrowed. Congress can either continue funding unnecessary programs like someone is printing cash in the basement, or we can face facts that there simply isn’t enough money to go around.
Now, I stand here today and I’ll defend responsible Federal spending on matters of Federal responsibility. Among other things, Congress ought to ensure funding for strong national defense, a secure border.
There are things, however, given the economic realities, that Congress ought to reconsider funding on the back of future generations. Just remember, every dollar we’re spending in discretionary spending this year, we are borrowing from our kids and our grandkids.
Let me simply say I can think of few finer examples to cut than the National Science Foundation’s Political Science Program. According to the NSF Web site, to date, more than $80 million has been awarded to the program’s nearly 200 active projects. Three-quarters of these awards, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion.
Again, three-quarters of these awards under this program for political science research, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities that have 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. Would those who would oppose this amendment have believed that Harvard and Yale would have to close their political science departments if Federal grants are not available for this program? Of course not. These universities and the field of political science will be just fine.
However, my greatest concern is not who received these funds, but how they are spent. Every dollar Congress spends is money we don’t have, as I mentioned.
So what kind of research is NSF charging to our credit card? $700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis; $600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.
Let me say that again: $600,000 here spent trying to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do. I think we can answer that question in about 5 minutes when we vote on this amendment because I can tell you, people out there want us to quit funding projects like this.
$301,000 to study gender and political ambition among high school and college students; $200,000 to study to determine why political candidates make vague statements. $200,000 to study why political candidates make vague statements. That’s what we’re paying for here.
These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them. How can we justify this outcome?
Now, I hold a graduate degree in political science myself. I agree that such research has its benefits. The work of political scientists advances the knowledge and understanding of citizenship and government, politics, and this shouldn’t be minimized. But they shouldn’t be subsidized by the National Science Foundation.
We can’t continue to spend money like this. I urge adoption of the amendment and yield back the balance of my time.
Mr. FATTAH. I move to strike the last word.
The Acting CHAIR. The gentleman from Pennsylvania is recognized for 5 minutes.
Mr. FATTAH. So hope springs eternal, but here I am again opposing my friend’s amendment.
Let me say, this program has been around for over 30 years, and a lot of political change has swept across the world from the time that this program started.
I think that it may appear to be costly, $11 million out of a $7 billion funding for the National Science Foundation, but I think that however expensive an education may be, ignorance will probably cost our country more.
It is important that we understand the political dynamics, radicalization of populations around the world, how political parties operate in the former Soviet Union, all of the other issues that are being studied.
I can see that you could probably bring a list of studies in front of the Congress from the National Science Foundation and get a laugh on any day. But these studies are important. They’re merit based. They’re decided on merit only.
The fact that some of the best funded universities win has to do, in part, with the fact that they’re able to have very good faculty who put together very good research projects, and they provide our country and our society a great deal of intellectual benefit.
Now, there’s some advantage, I guess, politically to appear to be anti-intellectual, to have some desire to know little or less about what’s going on in the world about us. But it is not worthy of a great Nation.
Now, Singapore has 4.8 million people. They put $7 billion in the National Science Foundation. We put $7 billion, and we spend our time tonight debating whether we want to cut some money, trying to understand how their political system got to the point of understanding that even in a very small country, it was critically important for them to become indispensable in terms of having a thirst for knowledge.
I would hope that this House would reject this amendment.
I yield back the balance of my time.
Mr. BROUN of Georgia. I move to strike the last word.
The Acting CHAIR. The gentleman is recognized for 5 minutes.
Mr. BROUN of Georgia. I yield to my good friend from Arizona.
Mr. FLAKE. I thank the gentleman for yielding. Let me just say, and I won’t take all the time, but there is something to the “laugh factor.” At some point we’ve got to realize here that the country’s watching us, and they’re looking to see if we’re funding programs like $600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do? $200,000 to study why political candidates make vague statements?
We’re funding this with taxpayer dollars. The acid test ought to be for all of us, whenever we’re spending money here, is this program worth borrowing money from our kids and our grandkids, from some countries, that don’t like us very much who are buying our bonds?
And this doesn’t pass that test. It doesn’t even come close. And if we simply say this is a big NSF budget and this is a very small part of this, this program, if we continue to say that, we’ll never cut it, and that’s the problem here. We aren’t.
The NSF funding, overall, is way up from the post-stimulus level. We said at the time that the stimulus was passed that that’s just a one-time deal, and these rates will come down, or these programs will come down. They haven’t. We’re continuing to fund them. And programs like this, the country just looks around and says, this is laughable. Look at what our policymakers are doing.
Again, I would say that we will find out the question, the $600,000 question, as to whether or not policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do, by how we vote on this amendment right now.
Mr. BROUN of Georgia. Mr. Chairman, I yield back the balance of my time.
The Acting CHAIR. The question is on the amendment offered by the gentleman from Arizona (Mr. Flake).
The question was taken; and the Acting Chair announced that the ayes appeared to have it.