• November 22, 2014

Senate Moves to Limit NSF Spending on Political Science

Congress took a giant step on Wednesday toward easing the threat of another budget stalemate, but the price of securing that compromise will continue to be felt at research universities and especially at those involved in political science.

The Senate, by a vote of 73 to 26, approved a measure to finance the government through the end of the fiscal year, on September 30. The bill is expected to win approval in the House of Representatives.

But the legislation would restore very little of the 5-percent cut in the budget of the National Institutes of Health that took effect on March 1 as a result of a process known as sequestration.

And the Senate included an amendment that broadly restricts the ability of the NSF to approve any grants involving political science unless the agency can certify them "as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States."

The amendment was proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican of Oklahoma who has sharply criticized the foundation's spending priorities.

Mr. Coburn sent a letter last week to the NSF's director, Subra Suresh, listing a series of agency-financed projects he considered a waste of taxpayer money. His list included several involving political science, including studies of voter attitudes toward the Senate filibuster and of the cooperation between the president and Congress.

Such subjects "may be interesting questions to ponder or explore" but aren't necessarily the best use of taxpayer money, Mr. Coburn told Mr. Suresh. "Studies of presidential executive power and Americans' attitudes toward the Senate filibuster hold little promise to save an American's life from a threatening condition or to advance America's competitiveness in the world," he wrote.

The Senate vote drew condemnation from Michael Brintnall, executive director of the American Political Science Association, who called it a dangerous act of political interference in science.

"Basically, it's shutting down a whole mode of independent federally funded research on the behavior of the government," Mr. Brintnall said.

'Pretty Chilling'

The legislative language of the amendment, restricting grants to those that promote the nation's security or economic interests, does leave some flexibility in definitions, Mr. Brintnall said, though it may be optimistic to think the NSF will approve projects that challenge the meaning. "I think it's pretty chilling," he said.

Projects likely to be affected, he said, include the American National Election Studies, a landmark series of studies and polls dating to 1948. Its current principal investigators are at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Stanford University.

Other major NSF-sponsored political-science work includes a study of school districts and government that informed many of the efforts by mayors in recent years to improve school-system governance, Mr. Brintnall said.

Mr. Coburn's amendment was incorporated into the bill without a recorded vote, following negotiations with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, who is chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. The amendment appears to have been a compromise from Mr. Coburn's original proposal, which would have eliminated the NSF's political-science program altogether, cut the agency's budget by $10-million, and given most of that money to the NIH for cancer research, Mr. Brintnall said.

The NIH had a budget of $30.7-billion in 2012, then lost $1.6-billion in sequestration, and would get back a small amount—$71-million according to the Senate Appropriations Committee, $63-million according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science—from the bill that won Senate approval on Wednesday.

The NSF, with a $7-billion budget in 2012, lost $209-million from sequestration, and would get back a substantial portion of that amount, and possibly more. The Appropriations Committee estimated the amount at $221-million, while the science association estimated it at $152-million.

Although it is probably too late to change the legislative language before the House gives the measure final Congressional approval, the restriction covers only the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30, Mr. Brintnall said.

The Association of American Universities, which represents the nation's major research institutions, also lamented the Senate's approval of Mr. Coburn's amendment. "While the amendment is not as bad as it could have been, it's still a disappointing restriction on political-science research," said an AAU spokesman, Barry Toiv.

NSF projects are approved only after a competitive review process that includes assessments by leaders in the field, Mr. Toiv said. State and national leaders rely on such work by political scientists to keep improving the function of the country's democratic system, he said.

NSF officials had no immediate comment.

Correction (3/22/2013, 12:34 p.m.; updated 3/27/2013, 1:27 p.m.): This article originally gave figures for the amounts of money cut by sequestration that the Senate bill would restore to the NSF and NIH. Subsequent estimates have become available, and this article has been updated to reflect them.

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