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Government Professors Praise Repeal of NSF Funding Restrictions

By Francesca Annicchiarico, Crimson Staff Writer

A little more than two weeks after Congress repealed 2013 restrictions imposed on the National Science Foundation’s Political Science Program, Harvard political scientists said that their federal funding is on surer footing.

“[The repeal] gives me more hope that in the future my research could qualify for a NSF,” said associate professor of Government Dustin Tingley, adding that imposing certification requirements on specific academic disciplines is “fundamentally undemocratic.”

The reinstated funding, included in a larger Congressional spending bill passed for the 2014 fiscal year in late January, restores several millions dollars cut by a March 2013 budgetary amendment that limited grants to projects that promoted “the national security and economic interests of the United States.” Sponsored by U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, the amendment limited the amount of federal funding available to political scientists at Harvard and elsewhere.

Stephen D. Ansolabehere, a government professor who has received funding through the NSF Political Science Program in the past, said that the amendment prevented “a lot of good research.” Now that the special conditions have been lifted, he said, political scientists at Harvard and elsewhere will have a higher chance to successfully apply for federal grants.

David M. J. Lazer, a visiting scholar at Harvard Kennedy School, who wrote extensively against the Coburn amendment on his blog, said that the certification requirements diminished the potential benefits that understanding the political system can offer to society.

A task force composed of members of the American Political Science Association presented to Congress a report on “negotiating agreement” in a polarized political arena in December 2013.

“I think one of the things that [the report] showed was how political science is helpful in understanding negotiation and achieving negotiation success, which a lot of people would portray Washington as having a hard time doing,” said Tingley,  a member of the task force, suggesting that political science organizations like the APSA played an important role in negotiating the repeal of the Coburn amendment.

“We and all of the other professional organizations in the social sciences are pleased that the Congress has recognized the importance of not having political interference in the setting of scientific priorities,” Kennedy School professor Jane J. Mansbridge, who served as the president of APSA in the academic year 2012-2013 and co-chaired the task force that produced the report, wrote in an email.

Still, despite the repeal, many say it will still be difficult for political scientists to receive full funding through the NSF, whose budget has been substantially reduced as a result of federal sequestration. For example, Government professor James M. Snyder said that prior to the passage of the Coburn amendment, he had received NSF political science grants for about 25 years, but had seen severe reductions in that funding in recent years.

“It was becoming less and less attractive to spend several weeks to write a grant proposal and then not get what you needed,” he said.

Snyder added that the NSF Political Science Program should shift its orientation and give preference to cutting-edge research as well as projects that represent “collective goods,” like the creation of large datasets that can benefit the entire political science community.

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

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