Tom Coburn was perplexed to see the US federal government spending $188,206 (£120,440) of its increasingly limited research money to pay for a study into why political candidates make vague statements and what the consequences might be.
Coburn is not just another disgruntled observer of the funding process. He’s a US senator. And his statement on this matter was not vague at all but crystal clear.
Citing that project and others, Coburn, a Republican, finally succeeded in a years-long effort to end federal support for any political science research unless it is “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States”.
It is the latest of several restrictions being imposed on government financial support for research, the use of certain government data, and even the collection by the government of some information – alarming scholars who say that the attacks are being imposed under the guise of austerity but are actually ideological.
“When the money shrinks, you start looking for things you think are vulnerable,” says Howard Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations. Such attacks, he adds, “are accelerating”.
Coburn’s amendment to an appropriations bill, which was passed by the Senate in March, has been followed by another proposal in the House of Representatives requiring the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency, to certify that the research it supports is “in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense”.
The chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Republican congressman Lamar Smith, has demanded to see the internal reviews of five specific social science grants that were, he said, of “questionable” value and “do not seem to meet the high standards of most NSF-funded projects”. Such a level of legislative micromanagement breaks with protocol, and the NSF has so far refused the request.
Another bill proposes to limit spending by the National Institutes of Health exclusively to research into issues affecting children. A previous bill, narrowly defeated last year, would have prevented the NIH from continuing to pay for economics research.
Access to data prohibited
Existing regulations already prohibit researchers who study education from getting access to data that could identify individual students, vastly reducing their ability to track the impact of such features as socio-economic status on academic success.
Congress has so far refused to allow the use of identification numbers instead of names to avoid this problem, part of a resistance to collecting personal information from the public.
For the same reason, another bill introduced in April by Republican congressman Jeff Duncan proposes to make completing the US Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey – which tracks demographic trends in years when there is no decennial census – optional rather than mandatory.
“The restrictions do tend to come from those folks on the political spectrum who are less inclined to trust government,” says Gerald Sroufe, director of government relations at the American Educational Research Association. “Of course, today that would be a lot of people. But in general it’s been the Republicans who have resisted things that have provided information about pupils and families.”
All this activity comes after Congress banned, for 17 years, any research into guns or gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control or other federal agencies, a decree that was finally overturned by an executive order from Barack Obama after the mass shooting in December last year that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut.
But while that tragedy forced congressional interference in one field of study to be lifted, the broader trend is heading in the opposite direction.
“The door has already been opened. That threat is not only there, it’s not just a threat any more – it’s an actuality,” says Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.
Coburn’s amendment is the most dramatic manifestation of this.
He originally pushed to end all funding for political science research, which last year accounted for about $11 million of the NSF’s $7.8 billion budget, or less than 1 per cent. As a compromise, he later pressed instead for a requirement that continued spending on such research be certified by the NSF’s director as likely to bolster economic and national security.
A further $325 million a year goes to fund research in the fields of economics and social science. But while all this comprises only a small portion of the science agency’s total, it pays for a large proportion of the US’ basic research in the social sciences.
Among other things, the new restrictions on political science spending threaten the 65-year-old American National Election Studies project, which gathers exhaustive information about the electorate and provides a wealth of information for historians.
“Maintaining democracy and understanding voting is a national security issue, but I’m not sure the senator would buy that at this point,” Silver notes wryly.
Coburn has said that the money should instead be used to pay only for research in the natural sciences, “to better focus scarce basic research dollars on the important scientific endeavours that can expand our knowledge of true science”.
But he also singles out for criticism government-funded political science research into why white working-class Americans vote for Republicans who support economic policies that seem to favour the wealthy; into how television journalists depict war; into what makes people for or against US military interventions; into how the elderly react to healthcare reform; into the impact of party leaders on the legislative process; and into how to reform campaign finance laws, along with a report that found that torture and imprisonment of enemy combatants by the US outside usual legal channels has contributed to a worldwide increase in human rights violations.
“Theories on political behaviour are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties and the voters, rather than being funded out of taxpayers’ wallets,” Coburn has previously said.
Critics say that the nation needs more, not less, objective research into government and politics, especially at a time when mistruths are repeated relentlessly and television journalism is increasingly partisan.
Doing away with it, they say, will make it easier for dishonesty to prevail and harder to challenge elected leaders who exhibit only passing acquaintance with the truth, or well-funded lobbyists who influence them.
“If you get rid of this independent source of knowledge, it becomes much easier to play with the facts,” Farrell says. “The effect of this is going to be to significantly reduce the information available to have well-informed debate.”
The critics point out that even Coburn has cited government-funded political science research in support of some of his positions.
“If you are going to say, well, governments at all levels, as well as the private sector, are going to plan in the dark, then fine, get rid of this stuff. But if you want evidence-based policy and to know what you’re doing, data help,” Silver says.
“It’s hard to look at the major problems facing this country without realising that you need to know something about economic, political, cultural and social behaviour.”
Scholars also say that congressional meddling in funding decisions will cause students to steer clear of disciplines such as political science. Even now that the ban on research into guns has ended, they say, almost no one specialises in this field any more because they know there is no money in it.
Criticising research and, for that matter, researchers “has been a long and proud tradition of members of Congress”, according to Silver – especially when they can point to studies with silly-sounding titles such as “Picturing animals in National Geographic, 1888-2008” and “Regulating accountability and transparency in China’s dairy industry” (among those cited by Smith) and “Why do political candidates make vague statements, and what are the consequences?” and “Political discussion in the workplace” (cited by Coburn).
Farrell discerns a significant strain of anti-intellectualism in the US. “Some scientific projects that are crazy-looking to the average constituent, that’s something you can generate some cheap soundbites about,” he says.
Meanwhile, Silver states, the NSF gives out 11,000 new grants a year. “Some of those are going to turn out to be clunkers. Some of them will go on to win a Nobel prize or turn into Google.
“The problem is, we have no clue which ones are going to turn out to be the clunkers, or the Nobel prizewinners or the Googles.”