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Political science budget cut from NSF, scientists speak up

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has cancelled funding to the Political Science Program for the fall cycle. This was caused by an amendment stating that federal funding should be given to research that qualifies for one of two conditions: that it either be vital to national security or be used for economic growth within the United States.

The NSF seemingly couldn't come to an agreement on how to judge the submissions based on the wording in the new laws, so they had to cancel this funding round to further come to terms and acquaint themselves with the new regulations.

AAAS MemberCentral spoke with leading political scientists Rick Wilson and John Aldrich about what happened, how political science departments have been affected, and prospects for recovery in the future. Rick Wilson is a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, Tx., where he studies human behavior, human cooperation and conflict. John Aldrich is Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and also is the editor of the American Journal of Political Science. He specializes in American politics and behavior, formal theory, and methodology.

AAAS MemberCentral (AAAS MC): Is there any historical precedent for the political climate leading to such an across-the-board funding cut?
John Aldrich and Rick Wilson (summarized comment): In a way, political science, and Social, Behavorioral and Economic Sciences division of the NSF as a whole, has been an easy target for ridicule the many years. For example, between 1975 and 1988, Sen. William Proxmire, a former Democrat from Wisconsin, gave the Golden Fleece Award to research that he judged a waste of taxpayer money. While not all of these awards were from the social sciences, many were.
Wilson: On one hand the Golden Fleece Award had it's use. It made sure research stayed above board and met NSF's high standards. On the other hand, most of these awards were pinned on high quality research that happened to look silly from a lay-person's standpoint. It pointed out that the scientific merit of the work was lost in translation, and that we should have done a better job translating our science to the mass public. Of course, in those days the focus was on individual projects. Only recently have a handful of Members of Congress decided to eliminate entire programs.
Aldrich: Political science is the study of politics from a science background, and it's not speculative. We can study the history of politics, behavior as well as theory, but it goes much further than that. By studying politics from a scientific background, we can avoid embarrassing scenarios like the Rove versus Fox News incident during the 2012 reelection of Barack Obama in which Karl Rove disregarded scientific thoughts during his public argument with his employer, Fox News.

AAAS MC: How did people and organizations handle these current budgetary cuts? What is the fallout of this? What other sources did they draw upon to make up for their funding difficulties?
Aldrich: This happened at a bad time. There were a large number of proposals that had been submitted and evaluated for the Spring round when the legislative language was implemented. Those proposals were not funded. The community was expecting to adapt to the new language and meet it for the Fall round. We were shocked when the Fall round of proposals was cancelled. The immediate impact of the legislative language is disconcerting. The Ralph Bunche Summer Institute, an intensive summer program designed to stimulate the graduate school experience, provide mentoring, and expand academic opportunities for students from underrepresented groups was cancelled as a consequence. This has a serious impact on our ability to train the next generation of scientists.

Wilson: Political scientists doing basic research have very few outlets. More than 80 percent of our funded basic research comes from the NSF. Alternate funding can be found in private areas. For instance, if political sciences crosses with neurobiology, funding might be found through National Institute of Health. In my own case I am interested in the human problems associated with natural disasters and there are other programs at NSF that provide funding for basic research. Private funding through corporations is a possibility, but that work is very applied, rarely leads to new basic research and often results in proprietary data that cannot be shared. Basic research questions are better left to be federally funded so that potential for biases is removed.

AAASMC: Do you expect such a funding cut to occur (be it partial or complete) next year as well?
Aldrich and Wilson (summarized comment): The aftermath certainly will be felt next year because there will have been no funding of proposals for 12 months. This has a huge impact for assistant professors who will find their funding about 12 months behind or more. Senior professors will also be impacted, for they will likely not be able to fund graduate students, nor provide research experiences for undergraduates.

After this, it's all speculation. There are three potential outcomes:

  1. Congress can pass a budget that could eliminate the restrictive language.
  2. Congress could simply adopt a Continuing Resolution, utilizing the language from this spring. This would leave the Political Science program in the same position it is currently in.
  3. A Continuing Resolution could be passed, with the old language explicitly changed. In the world of Congress, this is a minor issue for most and probably not worth the effort.

AAASMC: Do you have anything you'd like to say in closing?
Wilson: In the end it's not just about political science, but all sciences. The science community needs to be conscious of the fact that the Federal government is facing shortfalls. Basic research is a luxury and eliminating one program may seem a reasonable sacrifice. But if one program is cut, why not two or three? Who should be on the chopping block? Evolutionary biology? Climate science? The scientific community needs to better make its case that the things we study are of fundamental importance. A big part of our task, especially in political science, is to translate what we are learning to the mass public.
Aldrich: It all comes down to how Congress works on this together. We, as the science community, need to be conscientious of the fact that the government will be reevaluating this constantly for a while. We need to be prepared to come to the defence of the sciences.

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Grace Conyers