• August 31, 2015

Senator Proposes an End to Federal Support for Political Science

A Republican senator stirred up a hornet's nest on Wednesday by introducing an amendment that would cut off money for the National Science Foundation's political-science program.

Sen. Tom A. Coburn, of Oklahoma, offered the amendment when the annual appropriations bill for the Departments of Commerce and Justice and the federal science agencies, HR 2847, went to the Senate floor. A vote on the amendment is possible Thursday but is more likely to come next week.

"Political science would be better left to pundits and voters," said Don Tatro, Senator Coburn's press secretary, in an interview. "Federal research dollars should go to scientists who work on finding solutions for people with severe disabilities, or the next generation of biofuels, or engineering breakthroughs."

The American Political Science Association and other social-science organizations responded on Wednesday with an avalanche of e-mail alerts and Twitter bulletins. "We've tried to mobilize a lot of people very fast," said Michael A. Brintnall, executive director of the political-science association.

Even if Senator Coburn's amendment has slim prospects of passage, Mr. Brintnall said, the mere fact of its introduction is pernicious. Arguments like Senator Coburn's, he said, "start to diminish the value that social science offers to our political and social life, which extends into topics about security and other areas that are vital to the country."

Senator Coburn's office released a seven-page statement that singled out 14 NSF-supported political-science studies as projects that "in reality have little, if anything, to do with science."

The statement implies, without quite saying explicitly, that some of the studies were tainted by left-wing biases. It skeptically quotes from a news release about the Human Rights Data Project, which has been led by scholars at Binghamton University and the University of Memphis.

Hypothesis Testing, or TV Analysis?

One scholar whose work was singled out is Robert C. Lowry, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas who recently conducted a study of how political parties have responded to campaign-finance reforms.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Lowry said that he found the criticism preposterous. He pointed to a passage in Senator Coburn's statement arguing that there is no reason for the government to support the American National Election Studies, a longstanding social-science survey based at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

"The University of Michigan may have some interesting theories about recent elections," the senator's statement reads, "but Americans who have an interest in electoral politics can turn to CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the print media, and a seemingly endless number of political commentators on the Internet."

Mr. Lowry said, "I tell my undergraduate students, There's a difference between arguing over pizza at 3 a.m. and doing actual hypothesis-testing. CNN has a lot of smart people, but at best it's all a very short-term cycle. They chew over the results from last night's election, and by the next week they're on to something else."

Mr. Brintnall added that it seems ironic that Senator Coburn's amendment has arrived just days after the science foundation announced awards to 13 political scientists, among others, for national-security-related social-science projects, as part of a new joint program with the Department of Defense. (Those awards have come under some criticism from social scientists themselves.)

"These are research questions that a secretary of defense who has worked in both administrations has identified as being crucial to national security and understanding our place in the world," Mr. Brintnall said. "Secretary Gates decided that the best way to support this work was to work with the caliber of science that comes out of the NSF."

The political-science program makes up a very small proportion of the NSF's budget. In the 2005 fiscal year—the most recent year for which final data are available—the foundation spent $9.4-million on political-science research,, while the foundation's total research obligations were $3.7-billion.

"You could wipe out all of the political-science research and I doubt you could fund a chemistry lab for two years," Mr. Lowry said. "So the notion that this is holding back progress somewhere else is pretty far-fetched."

This is far from the first time that Congress has entertained proposals to cut federal support for social science. In 1995, a House committee approved a bill that would have eliminated almost all social-science programs at the NSF. And in 2006, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, introduced a similar measure.


1. globalvillage - October 08, 2009 at 12:43 am

Senator Coburn was born 150 years too late. Symbolically, he fits into the tradition of the "Know-Nothing" political party of the 1850s. He really doesn't know what he is talking about. We need significantly increased funding for systematic studies of political life.

Mr. Coburn's press secretary states that "political science would be better left to pundits and voters." In other words, superficial impressions should be substituted for rigorous scientific studies. Mr. Coburn and his people obviously have no idea what science is about.

Perhaps to be expected from Texahoma Republicans.

2. profurban - October 08, 2009 at 08:56 am

Yet another example of why the tenure system was created and is still needed. Without a tenure system what we taught, how we taught it, and even how information was gathered and interpreted would come under the scrutiny of the politicians. Isn't it interesting that those politicians who argue against "big government" so often promote "big brother."

3. laplante - October 08, 2009 at 08:59 am

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/02/us/politics/02ensign.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=john%20ensign&st=cse features coburn, a very distinguished senator from the awl bidness with deeply held values and beliefs.

4. willynilly - October 08, 2009 at 09:57 am

This Coburn nonsense is exactly why I have become a very very luke warm conservative Republican. Blunder after blunder over the past nine plus years have caused me untoward days of embarrassment over the stupid actions and public statements from the party I once cherished. What in the hell is the point of Coburn's action? What could possibly be his motivation? What can be gained from it? It casts the Republican Party as anti-education, anti-open inquiry and anti-intellectual. How can such a strategy win friends and public support. But I suppose that a party that would nominate George W. Bush as President has already clearly signaled that they do not value education and would prefer to limit learning and shut off avenues of intellectual inquiry.

5. superdude - October 08, 2009 at 10:01 am

The fact that he states that pundits and the news media could discuss the NES data, rather than having political scientists analyze it, reveal's Coburn's ignorance. How does he think the NES data are collected? For free?


6. jvputten - October 08, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Here is just one more politician who conflates the study of something with the advocacy of it.

7. lpettit - October 08, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Perhaps history should be left to collecting junk and displaying it in small town museums, geography confined to memorizing state capitals, economics made the exclusive province of investment bankers who produce nothing tangible, and kinesiology left to the shouting heads on ESPN? Thank God no one takes Coburn seriously.

8. tee_bee - October 08, 2009 at 03:16 pm

Sen. Coburn, and whatever boy/girl wonder wrote the staff memo on why political science is so scary, should remember that it is best to be thought a fool, than to open one's mouth (or write a memo) to remove all doubt. Poor Oklahoma, though. How must it feel to have two of the nation's worst Senators?

9. laoshi - October 09, 2009 at 09:18 am

'Social science' is an oxymoron.

Before choosing a graduate major, I spoke with a professor of political science about career possibilities. The gist was that a conservative like myself has a snowball's chance in hell of ever teaching political science to impressionable undergrads. Coburn is right, and not just Right, about this issue.

The National Science Foundation should be concerned with science, and not punditry. Why we call the major 'political science' is beyond me.

10. superdude - October 09, 2009 at 02:35 pm

Laoshi reveals Coburn-like ignorance of the field. While I agree that the NSF shouldn't fund punditry, you will not find punditry in Political Science. Laoshi's ignorance is, unfortunately, common. I can't tell you how many times I have to shoo away TV and print media people who want a Poli Sci professor in my department to provide a sound-bite in support of or in opposition to some policy.

We study politics and government, which is not the same as advocacy. Frankly, the advocates are typically those with the LEAST amount of knowledge.

11. allens - October 10, 2009 at 05:03 pm

Politicians don't like political science that reveals the problems with the current voting, etc system, given that they benefit from said system's problems. I suggest reading the book "Liberalism against Populism", by William H. Riker, on the contradictions between politicians claiming to represent "the people" with reality (that the "people" can't be represented, and shouldn't be).

12. laoshi - October 11, 2009 at 05:52 am


Frankly, left-wing monkeys really do run the asylum.

"Laoshi reveals Coburn-like ignorance of the field."

Please define 'Coburn-like ignorance', so that I can feel the full love of your ad hominem attack.

'While I agree that the NSF shouldn't fund punditry, you will not find punditry in Political Science.'

But I have found punditry in Political Science. Haven't you?

"Laoshi's ignorance is, unfortunately, common."

Political 'science' departments are unfortunately much more common than my infinite ignorance.

"I can't tell you how many times I have to shoo away TV and print media people who want a Poli Sci professor in my department to provide a sound-bite in support of or in opposition to some policy."

You sound just like the tenure-track liberal poli-sci professor who shooed me away from your ivory tower. And I don't even watch television!

"We study politics and government, which is not the same as advocacy."

Who are 'we'? Those who share the same 'superdude-like ignorance' in social(ist) science departments? Is this exclusion of others not a form of 'advocacy'?

"Frankly, the advocates are typically those with the LEAST amount of knowledge."

How do you measure the knowledge of those who disagree with you? Do you simply fling feces at them so you don't have to see that they are actually human beings with human brains? Or is it simply impossible that another human being can have more bananas than yourself?

13. profxfiles - October 13, 2009 at 10:02 am

Should we be surprised? This is from a senator who beleives in the young Earth (6000 year-old) creationism and said, in 2005, that the gay comunity, "is the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today. " Yup--I definitely feel more threatened by gays then by terrorists.

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