The Successful Republican Effort to Cut Government Funding for Social-Science Research

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 30 2013 5:17 PM

The Republican War on Social Science

They’re winning it.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., boards an elevator at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Dec. 31, 2012.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., boards an elevator at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Dec. 31, 2012.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The first time anyone outside of Florida’s Space Coast heard of Rep. Bill Posey, he was talking about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. It was March 2009. Posey had been in office for two months, and he was the first to propose a bill requiring presidential nominees to hand over “documentation as may be necessary to establish that the candidate meets the qualifications for eligibility.” He was Internet-famous overnight. Stephen Colbert was asking him to prove that he, Posey, wasn’t part alligator. “There is no reason to say that I'm the illegitimate grandson of an alligator,” said the congressman.

 

Posey’s been re-elected twice since then, and on April 17, he got the chance to stare down the president’s science czar, John Holdren. Posey and fellow Republicans on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee wanted Holdren to explain why the National Science Foundation was wasting so much money from an asked-for budget of $7.6 billion.

 

Posey read off titles of NSF-funded research projects. “ ‘Picturing Animals in National Geographic for the years 1988 to 2008’ costing $227,000,” said Posey. “ ‘Kinship, Women's Labor and China's Economic Performance in the 17th to 21st Centuries’ costing $267,000. ‘Regulating Accountability and Transparency in China's Dairy Industry.’ … I mean, it's just hard to conceive how those are important to our national security or our national interest.”

 

Holdren wasn’t moved, but he’d heard this before—and he’d hear it again. After the hearing, committee chairman Lamar Smith of Texas sent a letter to the NSF asking what the “intellectual merit” of this research was. Shortly thereafter, as first reported by Science magazine, Smith was drafting legislation that would require the NSF to prove that grants wouldn’t embarrass anybody. Was the research “in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science?” Could the NSF say that it was “the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large?”

 

Smith is attempting a version of the strategy used successfully by Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn last month. By amending the continuing resolution that’s funding the government this year, Coburn managed to prohibit any funds for NSF-funded political science unless it was somehow “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” He’d tried to put the ax to NSF’s political science funds before, and failed. But that tighter definition allowed him to argue that the funds could exist, as long as they weren’t squandered.

 

“Studies of presidential executive power and Americans’ attitudes toward the Senate filibuster hold little promise to save an American’s life from a threatening condition or to advance America’s competitiveness in the world,” explained Coburn. “In fact, a number of polls have been conducted over the last decade on the public’s views of the Senate filibuster.”

 

Attacking government-funded social science is popular, especially on the right. Last week, Texas Republican Rep. Ted Poe and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul introduced a bill that would change the American Community Survey, sent annually to a random selection of 3.2 million people, from mandatory to optional. If Americans didn’t want to fill it out, even if that would render it mostly useless as data, the private sector would do just fine.

 

When I asked Poe to explain how that information would be collected without the Community Survey, he said, “There are other ways to get the same information about the dynamics of business, and where to locate a business. You can do it through polling. You don’t have to force people to participate.”

 

Social scientists don’t agree, but it’s difficult for them to justify their own funding in a time of severe government cutbacks. Since March 1, when Congress and the president failed to replace sequestration with anything less idiotic, the human faces of austerity have included children whose Head Start programs are being cut, older people who are going without Meals on Wheels, and—less heart-tugging—business travelers and tourists whose flights were delayed. (We fixed that last one.)

 

All of those victims have infinitely more marquee value than social science professors. The new attempts to claw away at research have gone on for months, and the academics haven’t put up a compelling defense beyond one event on the Hill and the yeoman blogging of some professors like John Sides. “Going forward,” Sides wrote after Coburn’s win, “a coordinated lobbying effort is needed not only to roll back the restrictions on political science but to defend the NSF’s core mission as a promoter of scientific research in the public good, broadly defined.”

 

So far that lobbying effort doesn’t exist. Instead, Republicans are able to challenge NSF funding in order to pursue long-term political goals without too many people noticing.

 

Which goals? Well, last month the General Social Survey found that, over 40 years, the fraction of American homes containing guns had slipped from 50 percent to 35 percent. That validated one of the Democrats’ gun-safety talking points—that “gun nut” culture was new, and less legitimate than hunting culture. That gun study was funded in part by the NSF. So are studies that send scientists to measure glaciers in Greenland; so was Earth: The Operator’s Manual, a 2012 documentary about climate change, for people who don’t have the time to measure glaciers.

 

Is there a private sector ready to fund science and social science if the government stops? Not yet, not really. It’s been 17 years since a Republican-backed gun bill blocked the Centers for Disease Control from collecting certain data on guns and public health. There’s a Kickstarter-ish proposal to fund this research. It’s raised less than a third of the aspirational $25,000.

 

So Democrats and the administration are stuck defending NSF money in hearings that don’t get a lot of attention. Confronted by Posey, Holdren said what the academics wanted him to say. “I think there has been many beneficial results from the research funded by NSF,” he said, “and the social behavioral and economic sciences that have contributed, for example, to a better understanding of how our democracy works and how to make it stronger, that have contributed to making our government more efficient.”

 

Posey slightly softened his tone. “I'm not advocating we stop all the social-science study spending,” he said. “I just think it might be appropriate that much of that be left to the private sector.” How much, though? Someone should probably conduct a study.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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