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Harvard Political Scientists Lament NSF Funding Cuts

By Francesca Annicchiarico, Crimson Staff Writer

Six months after Congress approved cuts to the funding of the National Science Foundation Political Science Program, political scientists at Harvard said that their field has already begun to suffer from the loss of funding. Faculty members expressed concern at the precedent set by a Congressional decision about what research should be conducted.

The budgetary cutback was proposed by Republican Senator Tom Coburn, who argued that political science research rarely benefits society in a concrete way. He argued against NSF funding for political research unless it was “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States,” according to Slate.

Jane J. Mansbridge, a Harvard Kennedy School professor, said the financial loss that the Coburn amendment has caused the Government Department and the Kennedy School is hard to quantify, but she said that she personally has felt the impact of the cuts.

Because the NSF responds to specific proposals, Mansbridge said, it is difficult to know how many faculty members would have applied this year if the regulations had not changed. Back in March, however, The Crimson reported that the Kennedy School received almost $1 million in NSF funding in FY2012.

Mansbridge, who served as president of the American Political Science Association last academic year, reported that the NSF withdrew expected funding for her research project on negotiation in the political arena following the passage of the Coburn amendment.

“I was particularly sorry about this because negotiation is such a large part of politics and yet it has been relatively unstudied,” she said. “It is particularly sad not to have funding for this work when Congress today is having such a hard time negotiating.”

According to University professor emeritus Sidney Verba ’53, a former APSA president, the NSF cuts are slowing down or holding back several research projects in the government department. Verba said that in the past many members of the government faculty members have had successful research programs funded by the NSF.

Kennedy School professor Robert D. Putnam, who penned an editorial defending political science research, is among the Harvard faculty members who have benefited from NSF funding. In the article, which was published in Politico in July, Putnam wrote that under the new regulations he would not have received NSF funding for his groundbreaking work on civil society and democracy.

“Somewhere in America at this moment, young political and social scientists early in their careers are pursuing ideas at least as promising as mine 40 years ago, ideas that eventually could contribute to our national well-being,” Putnam wrote. “The Coburn amendment has the effect of turning off the oxygen in the incubator for those ideas.”

Harvard professors also shared their concern that the Coburn amendment has set a dangerous precedent.

“If we move toward an approach in which the elected representatives decide what kind of research they want to have done that research will be deeply politicized,” Mansbridge said. “I think we found over the course of many centuries that that’s not a good idea.”

Verba, who has received NSF funding in the past, described the Congressional approval as an attempt at “blackmail.”

“The NSF people in a way have no choice,” he said. “Either they will go along with [Senator Coburn] in this particular act, or they will block the work of the whole foundation.”

The issue also is on the minds of political scientists nationwide. Members of the ASPA discussed the impact of the funding restriction during their annual meeting in Chicago in early September.

Arthur P. Spirling, associate professor in the government department, said that political scientists broadly have united in opposition to the cuts by showing the value of past research conducted through NSF funding.

“I wish we were able to make the case to members of Congress in ways they would hear,” Mansbridge said.

—Staff writer Francesca Annicchiarico can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @FRAnnicchiarico.

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Social Sciences Division