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Why Congress should restore NSF’s political science funding

University Business, July 2013

Congress passed a continuing budget resolution in March, funding the federal government for another six months. Included in that resolution was an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) prohibiting the National Science Foundation from funding political science research unless it is certified as promoting America’s national security or economic interests. Political science receives roughly $10 million annually in NSF research support and was the only academic discipline singled out.

This outcome is potentially damaging to scientific research and to our nation in general. Our nation faces a large budget deficit right now, and it is entirely appropriate for our political leaders to root out waste in government spending. Yet this cut in NSF funding does essentially nothing to limit the scope of government or move it toward fiscal solvency. The federal government spent roughly $3.5 trillion last year; NSF’s political science program represents little more than a rounding error in a budget that size.

The bigger picture
But why should the public fund political science research? Political scientists are in the business of examining problems associated with democracy and representation, and investigating solutions for those problems.

Recent NSF grants have funded projects examining how to improve quality and responsiveness among government agencies, how best to measure party polarization, and voter fraud.

The vital NSF-funded American National Election Study, which has asked some of the same questions of voters since 1952, has been used not just by political scientists, but also by psychologists, economists, historians, political practitioners, and others.

Contrary to some claims, NSF grants do not simply line the pockets of political scientists. Typically, much of the funding is spent on hiring and training graduate students and research assistants, providing them with skills and income they need as they begin their careers teaching the next generation of students. The institution’s cut of the funding allows for the funding of other commitments.

Over the past 20 years, NSF’s political science program has provided roughly $2 million to the University of Denver, the University of Colorado, and Colorado State University. A grant managed at Boulder produced a detailed database of every bill considered by Congress since World War II, giving researchers a powerful tool for understanding the creation of laws. A grant to DU supported more than a dozen students as they surveyed delegates and protesters at the national party conventions in 2008. Researchers in Fort Collins managed an NSF grant examining public perceptions of Supreme Court decisions.

Such scholarship is beneficial to the public. Scholars at large research schools like Stanford and Harvard may well be able to find other support for their research; faculty at smaller schools probably won’t. NSF funding often makes the difference between research that happens and research that doesn’t.

What’s more, NSF has a demonstrated history of being scrupulous, rigorous, and unbiased in awarding funds. Without such a funding source, scholars may be able to find some organizations to support their research, but those sources may be motivated by political biases and demand certain types of results from the research.

Narrow sliver of the budget
Public officials are certainly free to make decisions about the best use of the public’s money. But to single one discipline out of the many that receive federal support seems pernicious, especially when that discipline is focused on basic questions about the quality of our government and its abilities to improve people’s lives. The answers to these questions are neither cheap nor obvious; they require support and expertise to answer.

As Congress considers its next budget resolutions, we strongly encourage its members to restore full funding to the NSF political science program. This represents only a very narrow sliver of the federal budget, but it makes an enormous difference to scholars, their students, and, ultimately, anyone who cares about the functioning of their government.

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver, Robert Duffy is a professor of political science at Colorado State University, and David Brown is a professor of political science at University of Colorado at Boulder.


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