A Congressional budgetary amendment severely limiting National Science Foundation funding for political science research poses a significant threat to that field’s most promising academic work, Harvard government professors warned Monday.
Just as important, professors argued, these cuts set a dangerous precedent for direct legislative intervention in the administration of federal research dollars.
“For basic, high-quality, foundation political science research—the NSF is by far the most important funder,” said government professor Robert D. Putnam, a former NSF grant recipient. “I think most people understand that this is really dumb.”
The amendment prohibits all NSF funding of political science research “except for projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The amendment was added to a long-sought budget deal designed to fund the government through the end of the 2013 fiscal year.
The $984 billion deal passed in the Senate by a vote of 73 to 26 last Wednesday and passed in the House of Representatives by a 318-109 vote on Thursday.
Senator Tom Coburn, who sponsored the amendment, wrote in a letter to outgoing NSF Director Subra Suresh that the Foundation needed to “do more with less” and reconsider projects that are not likely to lead to “truly meaningful discoveries or knowledge,” as it faces a five percent sequester to its budget for the current fiscal year.
“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," Coburn wrote.
It is unclear how exactly the amendment will affect Harvard and its researchers, who are already facing the implications of across-the-board funding cuts enacted earlier this month. The Office for Sponsored Programs reported that the Kennedy School received nearly $1 million from the NSF in the 2012 fiscal year—a figure that represents 18.3 percent of the Kennedy School’s federally sponsored funding. Government Department figures were not immediately available.
Regardless of the exact financial impact, professors said that the targeted cuts to political science are troubling in principle.
“Given the current dysfunctions of US government, surely we need more knowledge about politics, government, and governance now not less. In contrast, this amendment—not yet law—represents a vote for darkness over light, a triumph of ideological certainty uninformed by evidence,” David M. J. Lazer, director of the NSF-sponsored Program on Networked Governance at the Kennedy School, wrote on his blog last week.
Government professor Theda R. Skocpol said the cuts will likely affect certain programs more than others, particularly large ongoing data collection projects. Though the figures are not huge, she added, they are big enough to have an impact on important work.
“I think the real issue here is not this particular voice vote, which may be reversed, but the principal of Congress delving into the NSF budget to prohibit subcategories of research—that's terrible,” Skocpol said.
The amendment has caught the attention of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 62 universities, including Harvard, that works to reinforce the relationship between educational institutions and government.
Barry Toiv, the vice president for public affairs of the AAU, said that the targeting of a specific field of research for cuts sets a dangerous precedent for the government’s involvement in science and creates a “slippery slope” for further research cuts.
“It’s a way of cutting research, and at the same time being able to say, ‘I don’t really want to cut ‘serious’ research,’” he said. “It means that Congress is arbitrarily picking winners and losers, and that’s the last thing we need.”
Congress still needs to come to terms on a budget for the 2014 fiscal year. That debate will likely continue into April.
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