The Coalition Column

Defunding the Social Sciences

Lee White, May 2013

Tucked away in the Senate version of the continuing resolution that kept the federal government funded for the rest of the 2013 fiscal year (Public Law 113-6) is language that places major restrictions on political science research projects that can be funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The amendment, authored by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), prohibits the National Science Foundation from funding political science projects, unless the NSF director certifies projects as vital to national security or the economic interests of the United States. When the director makes such exceptions, the NSF must post reasoning for each exception on its website. The amendment allows any unobligated funds to be used for "other scientific research and studies that do not duplicate those being funded by other federal agencies.

"The language, as bad as it is, reflects a watered-down version of Coburn's original amendment that would have eliminated all funding for the political science program at NSF and redirected it to cancer research. According to a Coburn aide quoted in Congressional Quarterly, the amendment was changed because of parliamentary prohibitions on shifting funding between budget accounts.

This is not the first time the political science program at NSF has come under attack. Coburn unsuccessfully attempted in 2009 to attach a similar amendment to a funding bill. Last year, Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) succeeded in attaching language to the fiscal year 2013 Commerce, Justice, State appropriations bill to eliminate the political science program at NSF. The House adopted the Flake amendment by a close vote of 218-08. The bill was never enacted into law.

The AHA Council recently issued a strongly worded statement opposing the Coburn amendment. And as one would expect, the American Political Science Association condemned Senator Coburn's actions:

The amendment creates an exceptionally dangerous slippery slope. While political science research is most immediately affected, at risk is any and all research in any and all disciplines funded by the NSF. The amendment makes all scientific research vulnerable to the whims of political pressure. Adoption of this amendment demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the breadth and importance of political science research for the national interest and its integral place on the nation's interdisciplinary scientific research agenda. Singling out any one field of science is short-sighted and misguided, and poses a serious threat to the independence and integrity of the National Science Foundation.

The practical impact of Coburn's amendment is limited. The continuing resolution expires on September 30, so this will only be in effect for a short time unless the Congress adopts similar language in the fiscal year 2014 budget. In addition, while the language is not clear, it appears it would not affect existing projects, only projects NSF funds going forward.What is more disturbing, beyond the precedential impact, is that the Coburn amendment reflects a larger disdain by Republican leadership in the House and Senate for social sciences generally.

In a highly publicized speech given earlier this year before the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) stated, "funds currently being spent by the government on social science-including on politics of all things-would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.

"House Science and Technology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) responded to Cantor's speech by saying, "I'm starting to feel like a broken record but I'm just going to keep saying it-the social sciences are important. They help us understand what we do, why we do what we do, and how we can do things better. There is almost always a social sciences angle in the most important issues of the day like energy, national security, and health.

"Cantor's speech also triggered a public feud with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. In a column entitled "The Ignorance Caucus," Krugman specifically criticized Cantor's call for an end to social science research, saying, "these days his party dislikes the whole idea of applying critical thinking and evidence to public policy questions." Krugman went on to state sarcastically, "it's surely a waste of money seeking to understand the society we're trying to change.

"In a letter to the Times rebutting Krugman's charges, Cantor stated, "Reprioritizing government's existing spending to favor saving lives over more political science research is not anti-science; its common sense.

"Lest we might comfort ourselves by assuming this is a problem that affects political scientists and not historians, think again. History has already taken its lumps in the budget process and more pain is coming. Over the past few years we've seen the Teaching American History grants, which funded continuing education for K-12 history teachers, eliminated. Funding for K-12 civics, foreign languages, and other programs are gone as well.

Legislation to eliminate the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) has been reintroduced this session. Its funding has dropped from a high of $13 million just a few years ago down to $4.75 million after the sequester cuts took effect this year. And there are real fears that the forthcoming fiscal year 2014 budget from the Obama administration may defund the NHPRC. The National Endowment for the Humanities is also under fire. Title VI/Fulbright Hays programs that fund international education programs have been gutted.

Senator Coburn, and his ilk, are not going anywhere. His well-earned nickname in the Senate is Dr. No. But there's no James Bond to swoop in and save our communities in our hour of peril.

Unfortunately, history and social science programs are now perceived by budget cutting hawks as low-hanging fruit, lacking any real constituencies willing to fight for them. History cannot stand alone in the fight. We must unite with all social sciences to push back against these cuts now because, to quote Bruce Springsteen's song My Hometown, once "these jobs are going boys ... and they ain't coming back to your hometown."

-Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.