Jeff Flake, US representative for Arizona’s 6th congressional district, tried and failed this week to get his colleagues in the House of Representatives to slash the budget of the National Science Foundation, proposing an amendment to a 2013 spending bill that would have cut more than $1 billion (£623 million) from the agency’s funds.
Unable to convince his fellow House members that the government needs less research in physics, engineering and other fields, he chose a lower-hanging target: social science studies with easy-to-ridicule titles. And this time, he was persuasive.
By a vote of 218 to 208, the House on 9 May backed an amendment that would bar the NSF from spending any of its 2013 funds on its political science programme, which allocated around $11 million in peer-reviewed grants this year. Explaining the amendment on the House floor, Flake said that given his colleagues’ reluctance to slash the agency’s overall budget – the House defeated his earlier amendment by a vote of 291 to 121 – Congress should ensure, “at the least, that the NSF does not waste taxpayer dollars on a meritless programme”.
In hunting for programmes that the government should not spend its precious dollars on, Flake told the House: “I can think of few finer examples to cut than the National Science Foundation’s Political Science Programme.”
The agency is spending more than $80 million, he said, on about 200 active projects – and three-quarters of those funds, he added, “were directed to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion...Think about it. Three out of the four of the grants awarded by the NSF political science programme go to the wealthiest universities in the country”.
More troubling than who received funds is what they are spent on, Flake argued – before launching into what has become a rite of spring in Washington, in which members of Congress list academic projects whose titles or subjects strike them as unworthy.
Some of the topics that set Flake off seemed predictable, given current politics – for example, “$700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis”.
But in a particularly troubling sign for political scientists and advocates for academic research (including several scholars posting about the bill on the Monkey Cage political blog), several of the projects that Flake singled out for ridicule (“These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them”) touch on issues such as whether policymakers do what citizens want, and why young people don’t seem interested in going into politics.
“This doesn’t look like evidence of the Golden Fleece award problem,” says Michael A. Brintnall, executive director of the American Political Science Association, referring to the long-standing tradition of singling out research and other pet Congressional projects with insignificant-sounding names or subject matters for ridicule.
But Brintnall says the projects that Flake cited, and which the NSF programme supports, deal with such topics as “national security and the understanding of democracy worldwide. “These were not goofy titles. This is substantive work,” he says.
He adds: “We know there’s a sentiment out there that views science and research [with some scepticism]”, but he admits to some surprise at how “surgical” Flake’s focus on political science was.
Neither is that fact lost on Jennifer Lawless, an associate professor of government at American University and principal investigator on one of the grants cited by Flake. The $301,113 grant, on the topic of “Understanding the Origins of the Gender Gap in Political Ambition”, will survey 4,000 high school and college students about their potential interest in running for office, she says, to try to figure out “why young people are not getting involved in politics”.
Lawless says she hopes it was not the title’s focus on gender that drew Flake’s attention to her study, although she notes that Congress is 83 per cent male. Regardless of what attracted his interest, she says, Flake’s attack on competitively awarded social science research, and its support by a majority of members of the House, both “undermines the legitimacy of that process” and provides “evidence to suggest that there’s a general disregard for things that can produce new knowledge”.
The House vote may be nothing more than symbolic; a similar provision would have to appear in whatever appropriations legislation ultimately passes Congress to fund the NSF and other agencies, and survive a vote in the Democratically-controlled Senate and a potential veto by President Barack Obama.
But that makes it no less distressing to scholars like Brintnall and Lawless. The latter has found some humour in the situation, however, which she says may offer a prime example of why young people (and others) might be turned off politics. “I may no longer need to conduct my study,” she quips. “This gives us plenty of evidence.”