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de-funding political science research sets a precedent

10 May 2013

In late March, the US Congress decided to eliminate National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for political science that failed to promote the “national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Yeah, seriously.

The response from many political scientists I know was that our discipline makes a significant contribution and is thus worthy of funding (e.g., #PoliSciNSF). But almost a year ago now, Chris Zorn warned us not to engage on the terms of the knuckleheads (my word, not his) who brought about this de-funding of science about whether the research we do is worthy. Zorn instead focused on the precedent such an action sets:

The idea that individual members of Congress should sit in judgment over individual programs of scientific research opens up the possibility of the politicization of the scientific process by people across the political spectrum. This is of course not limited to NSF: NIH, NIJ, DOD, etc. could all see their research arms’ funding compromised by legislators looking to make some political hay. Don’t approve of homosexuality? Defund Prevention Science at DAR/NIMH. Against contraception? Get rid of CRH at NICHD. And so forth.

In the same vein, a recent letter in Science written by Rick Wilson makes a convincing case for why scientists beyond political science should care:

…the larger science community should not ignore the shackling of one program at NSF. If politics dictates what is worth studying, all disciplines are at risk. Why stop at political science? Why not neuter any grants that touch on evolutionary theories? After all, many in Congress deny the value of Darwin. The challenge to science is clear. If politics determines what is palatable, we could be picked off one at a time. The science community needs to clearly voice its opposition to this political intrusion in defining what is acceptable science.

Plenty of folks have weighed in (see this, this, and especially this). I don’t have much to add to this debate, but only want to echo what I’ve highlighted from Zorn and Wilson’s points here: every scientist should see this as an attack. My fellow scientists, you should be concerned when politicians start deciding what kinds of research we should be doing.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 May 2013 3:37 pm

    The “all science” followup wasn’t far behind (http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/HQRA.pdf). Luckily it hasn’t passed yet, and the backlash this time around has been bigger (http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/42613JohnsonSmithNSFgrants.pdf). But the ultimate outcome is still TBD.

  2. 7 June 2013 5:51 am

    This certainly sucks for you guys. Condolences.

    But politics and science have always been bed-fellows. Dance with the devil and sometimes he is going to burn you. (Shameless plug of my own field alert) Ever read anything by Science and Technology Studies (STS) writers? Timothy Mitchell, Steve Shapin, Bruno Latour are my favs.

    I hope all is well at your new job.

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