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Tom Coburn Doesn’t Like Political Science

Sen. Tom Coburn doesn’t like political science. Since 2009 the Oklahoma senator has been trying to ban National Science Foundation funds for political-science research. His new Senate colleague, Jeff Flake of Arizona, has an M.A. in political science, but doesn’t like it either. Flake tried to block NSF funds when he was in the House of Representatives. When Rep. Eric Cantor gave a speech last month to relaunch the Republican agenda, the Virginia congressman singled out political-science research—a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of government spending—as a major example of government waste.

On Wednesday, Coburn’s efforts bore some fruit. Coburn again tried to offer an amendment to a must-pass budget bill—the continuing resolution for the 2013 fiscal year—that would block federal funds for political-science research. He agreed to narrow the amendment, so that it would require the National Science Foundation’s director to certify that supported projects “promote the national security or economic interests of the United States.” His modified amendment passed on a voice vote.

The new amendment, part of legislation that passed the House on Thursday, is intended to stop the NSF from supporting research on the workings of American democracy and government. Its backers have repeatedly cast scorn on the very idea that political science tells us anything about how democracy and government work. Coburn himself has suggested that Americans who care about electoral politics don’t need data sources like the American National Election Studies project. Instead, he claims that they can get all the information they need from Fox News, MSNBC, and Internet commentary.

Coburn is dead wrong. The American National Election Studies project has been gathering comprehensive data on public opinion and elections since 1948, giving political scientists, economists, and sociologists a comprehensive map of how the American electorate has changed over the better part of a century. Researchers on the project conduct hours-long in-person interviews with thousands of Americans from all walks of life, gathering far richer data than any public-opinion poll. Eliminating its funds will destroy, for future generations, a key element of our national historical record.

The amendment will damage public debate. A new generation of data-driven journalists like Ezra Klein, Ramesh Ponnuru, Matthew Yglesias, and Philip Klein are using quantitative results to transform public debate about politics, replacing unsubstantiated opinions with evidence-based argument. That transformation requires high-quality, publicly accessible data—the kind of data often supported by the NSF.

Finally, it hurts politics. Contrary to Coburn, Flake, and Rep. Darrell E. Issa of California, the U.S. Congress could use more good social science, not less. Take any urgent policy question—school choice, taxation, global warming—and you will find a multitude of quarreling voices, each trying to shout down the others. Many of those voices belong to lobbyists paid to defend their clients’ interests or to people whose political commitments trump their commitment to the facts. It is very difficult to figure out who is telling the truth and who is not.

Publicly financed social science imposes a tax on dishonest arguments. The NSF requires good research methods and hard results, which can puncture inflated claims. It pushes for well-documented and accessible research, making it easier to figure out who is dealing from the bottom of the deck. Among those recognizing the benefits of NSF-backed research is … none other than Tom Coburn himself, who turned to NSF-supported data gathered by the political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones when he wanted to defend the Government Accountability Office.

The NSF pays for 61 percent of basic research in the social sciences. Publicly supported academic research is, and should be, democratically accountable. Yet politicians have wisely delegated the particulars of funding lines to the scientific community. Politicians are not scientists, and do not have the expertise to judge which research areas and questions are promising and which are not.

The Coburn amendment changes that. It imposes crude political criteria on scientific grant making, arbitrarily decreeing that social scientists cannot get funds for studying key aspects of politics. It is clear that Coburn’s ambitions stretch far beyond the social sciences. In previous reports he has attacked the NSF for purportedly useless research in robotics, biology, and other areas of the natural sciences.

If this precedent is not reversed, it will probably be expanded in unhappy ways. Politicians will attach ever-more-onerous conditions to NSF funds, in order to make sure that research they like gets money, while research that they dislike does not. Politicians should not micromanage the grant-making process. They are likely to not only misunderstand the science but use their influence to mischaracterize good research in attempts to score political points.

In the worst-case scenario, Coburn’s amendment could also set a dangerous precedent for academic research in general. Introducing political micromanagement into a system that should be governed by scientific criteria would essentially politicize science. The NSF finances important research in politically controversial areas such as climate science, biology, and evolutionary science. To date, the NSF has been able to shield grant-making decisions in those areas from broader political acrimony. Politicians who deny global warming and evolution have not wanted to seem overtly anti-science, and have refrained from direct attack.

That delicate balance may be upset, as it becomes more acceptable to interfere with the inner workings of decision making at the NSF. Research on global warming, evolution, and biology may become fair game. The Coburn amendment is a tragedy for both political science and public debate. Its broader legacy may be a tragedy for the basic process of scientific discovery, if it is not swiftly reversed. Tom Coburn may not like political science. It’s important to remember that many of his colleagues don’t like science at all.

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He blogs at The Monkey Cage.

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