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Federal Research Funding and the Unwillingness to Cut Bait

Red Fish Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo

Red Fish Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo (Photo credit: hitthatswitch)

Big news last week: the US Congress passed a stopgap funding measure to keep the government  functioning through the end of September. That’s a good thing. No one (and by “no one,” I mean just under half of us) wants a government shutdown.

Smaller news, and less obviously good — first of all, the legislation does little to restore the 5% cut that sequestration took from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Health (NIH) budgets. Second, the budget agreement includes an amendment that provides the following restriction:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.

The amendment was brought by Senator Tom Coburn (R – Oklahoma). According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Coburn had earlier sent a letter to the NSF’s director, criticizing the NSF for underwriting projects that he considered to be wasteful of taxpayer money. The projects included a study of voters’ attitudes toward a recent Republican filibuster and one examining public opinion about cooperation between Congress and the president.

This isn’t the first time Sen. Coburn has attempted to choke off federal funding to political science research. As long ago as 2009, Politico was reporting on Coburn’s intention to introduce a similar amendment to a large budget bill. That attempt did not succeed — but this one did.

The reaction from the blogosphere has been along predictable lines: criticism from liberal commentators who see this as an example of conservative anti-scientism as well as from academic political scientists who characterize it as “a gross intrusion into the widely-respected, independent scholarly agenda setting process at NSF”; praise from conservatives who . . . well, actually, I haven’t been able to find much public comment on the Coburn amendment from the usual conservative suspects. They probably don’t see much percentage in crowing about it.

When I read the amendment, I confess that two lobes of my brain started arguing with each other. My Political Cynic lobe said this:

Of course a Republican senator is going to want to limit federal funding of political science research. That funding goes to academic social scientists, most of whom are relatively liberal, and whose research agendas are likely to be contrary to his own agenda. This is all about suppressing views he doesn’t like.

But then my Economic Realist lobe responds:

When federal money is tight (and it’s tighter now than it has been in a while), you have to make choices. You can make choices based on consciously-selected, mission-based criteria, or you can decline to set those criteria and make choices based on inertia. Invoking Coburn’s politics amounts to an ad hominem argument. The relevant and useful question is: what’s wrong with the criteria laid out in the amendment?

I don’t know for sure which part of my brain is right, but I do know one thing — it’s much easier (and much more politically safe) to talk about the value of things than to make choices between valuable things. Speaking as a librarian, I can tell you that we absolutely hate making those choices — or even, too often, acknowledging that such choices have to be made. Instead, what we love to do is talk about how valuable everything is. Talking about value makes everyone feel good, because there is no library program or journal subscription or committee or program that is without value (or at least potential value, if only it could get [better people/more funding/more staff time/an extended deadline/a better office]). When faced with the choice between continuing to fish and cutting bait, we almost always choose to leave the line in the water just a little longer — because who knows what might happen? Now, we do cut bait, because we increasingly have no choice. But the point at which cutting bait is your only choice is the point at which you have lost the opportunity for meaningful decision-making. It amounts to decision-making by cop-out.

This is why I get so impatient when people respond to something like the Coburn amendment by shouting about the value of what it cuts. The question isn’t whether the thing being cut is valuable (of course it is); still less is the question whether we should cut valuable things (of course we shouldn’t). The question is which valuable things we will cut, once all the non-valuable things are gone and the resources available are still insufficient to support everything that remains. I strongly suspect that most Republicans would agree that doing voter opinion surveys is of some value. (I’m sure they found it more valuable when Ronald Reagan was in office.) Where they seem to disagree with Democrats is in their belief that such surveys are more valuable — which is to say, more worthy of taxpayer dollars — than other kinds of research. The lobe of my brain that sees Coburn as an opportunist looking for ways to shut up those who disagree with him, however accurate that assessment may be, does nothing to help resolve the question of whether Coburn’s position is correct on the merits in this particular case.

Why am I writing about this in the Scholarly Kitchen? Because I am concerned, first of all, that our unwillingness in libraries to cut — to stop doing things, to discriminate not between what is and isn’t valuable, but between what is less valuable and what is more valuable — is contributing to a decline in our relevance, a dynamic to which we have so far tended to respond by ever more loudly protesting our ongoing relevance. Second of all, I worry that this tendency extends to academia as a whole and puts higher education (as we understand it) at risk of implosion under the external pressure of emerging competitors in a cold and heedless marketplace of new educational opportunities — perhaps not this week, but sooner than we think. And third, I am concerned that if and when this implosion happens, what will take the place of libraries and universities as we currently understand them will serve us less well in the long run, because those whose choices will shape the future of academia are not always guided in those choices by consideration of their own long-term best interests.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong. In the meantime, good luck getting grant support for your political science research.

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About Rick Anderson

I'm Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collections in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

Discussion

32 thoughts on “Federal Research Funding and the Unwillingness to Cut Bait

  1. Your last big paragraph is quite a shocker. Can you elaborate on the cuts you think need to occur? I agree that hard choices lie ahead.

    Posted by David Wojick | Mar 26, 2013, 7:34 am
    • That’s actually the wrong question. It actually has an easy answer: what should be cut is any program that fails to return benefits in proportion to the resources it eats. What my piece is trying to get at is a much more difficult question: what will we do when cuts are fiscally required, but the only programs left are ones that shouldn’t be cut. The right answer to that question will (or should) vary from institution to institution, depending on mission. I realize that sounds like a cop-out, but it’s the only good answer. To say that cutting Program X would be equally appropriate at Georgia Tech and at Oberlin College would be silly.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Mar 26, 2013, 10:04 am
      • A broader response to the question than probably Rick had in mind. Copying Hagel et al one can think of three types of activity that organizations engage in: infrastructure, customer relationship management (or ‘engagement’ in our terms) and product innovation. Previously everybody did all three, but now, they claim, people are beginning to specialise in one or two.

        The library used to be very infrastructure heavy, vertically integrated around the collection – the building to house it, the staff to organize and interpret it, and the systems to manage it. However, just as elsewhere these things are peeling apart.

        Infrastructure is very important, but often tends not to be institution-specific or to create distinctive local value. I expect libraries to shift much more infrastructure to shared or external provision, and reduce the local dedicated attention to it. Think of print collections here as well as systems and related infrastructure.

        Engagement is crucial, and more attention should be focused here. Here I include stuff that is pre-production in the sense that there is not an off-the-shelf solution. So thinking about data curation, interaction with scholarly communication discussion, disclosure of institutional assets, things that improve university reputation (disclosure of materials/expertise), curricular support, local systems integration. More direct engagement to support research and learning workflows/behaviors. An example of shift from Infrastructure to engagement is the reconfiguration of space around the user rather than around the collection. Innovation is interesting, and can happen in various ways.

        Posted by lorcan dempsey (@lorcanD) | Mar 26, 2013, 11:16 am
        • These are good points. I tend to frame them in terms of “library-centered” questions (“Is our collection big enough?” “What’s our ARL ranking?” “How do we get more money from the administration?”) versus “patron-centered” ones (“Are our faculty members able to do their research with a minimum of frustration?” “Do students have to come to the library in order to use our collections?”). Infrastructure questions are almost invariably library-centered; engagement is, by its nature, patron-centered–though if we aren’t careful we can end up doing it in a library-centered way (“Hi, I’m your library liaison. How can I make you a better library user today?”).

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Mar 26, 2013, 11:35 am
  2. Considering the entire budget and debt issues are made up and fantasies of the the likes of Sen Coburn there should be no cuts! What we see here is a political agenda.

    Posted by Harvey Kane | Mar 26, 2013, 9:53 am
  3. An interesting byproduct of this legislation is to remove political science (or most of it anyway) from the ambit of the FASTR legislation. If NSF is not funding political science research (much) anymore, then the government cannot mandate that it be made available OA, right? So, probably without this intent, Coburn was handing OA advocates a defeat.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Mar 26, 2013, 11:43 am
    • It would actually be very interesting to know what proportion of political science research is underwritten by NSF funding now. My guess is that it’s a smallish proportion, but I don’t know. It’s very possible that the Coburn amendment’s real-world impact will be small.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Mar 26, 2013, 11:58 am
      • It should be noted that all federally funded research programs require approval by Congressional Committees, typically four. Zeroing a field by amendment is unusual but programs are frequently cut or terminated. Congress pays the bills.

        One wonders what NSF did pre-2009 to set this off?

        Posted by David Wojick | Mar 26, 2013, 3:37 pm
        • Well, we could take Coburn at his word; here’s the letter in which he explains his action to the NSF director: http://1.usa.gov/ZVjiWH

          Or we could assume that NSF did something specific and unmentioned to attract Coburn’s displeasure. Unless it was something very strange, I would have expected to see it mentioned in the letter.

          Or we could assume that Coburn just doesn’t like federal funding going to support research by generally-liberal college professors who are going to turn up (and publicize) findings that go against his political agenda. (That said, most of “low-priority” research projects he lists in his letter strike me as pretty apolitical.)

          Or, heck, maybe all three. We may never know which, what combination, or what other factor led Coburn to submit the amendment.

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Mar 26, 2013, 4:50 pm
          • I am sure his staff could tell us if asked discreetly. The letter looks like he is just taking over for Proxmire but without the rubber chicken, mores the pity. The polysci attack may well stem from the study on Senate Republican behavior, which might be seen as agency activism, a big no no. The amendment got a lot of votes. Overall I think he is trying to establish a science policy position without serving on such a committee. He is a doctor I think. Note his praise for hard science and math. He may think that polysci is not science. Many do.

            Posted by David Wojick | Mar 26, 2013, 5:20 pm
            • I’m sure they could, too–but if they’re doing their jobs, they won’t answer in any way that might put their boss in a bad light (now matter how discreetly they’re asked). For that reason, I would be leery of whatever response I got from them.

              Posted by Rick Anderson | Mar 27, 2013, 4:31 pm
              • Not sure what your bad light means here. I have found staffers to be pretty honest provided you are not going to publish what they say, just like any employees. These people have clearly done a lot of investigative work. I imagine they are proud of it and will be happy to explain it.

                Posted by David Wojick | Mar 28, 2013, 9:34 am
              • “Provided you are not going to publish what they say” is the key point here. You suggested contacting them in order to answer the question you posed above (“One wonders what NSF did pre-2009 to set this off?”). What’s the point of asking if I can’t share the answer?

                Posted by Rick Anderson | Mar 28, 2013, 9:53 am
              • Telling the story while protecting your sources is the fine art of investigative journalism.

                Posted by David Wojick | Mar 28, 2013, 10:12 am
              • I’m sure that’s true, so I guess we’ll have to hope that an investigative journalist takes up your question.

                Posted by Rick Anderson | Mar 28, 2013, 10:40 am
              • I could do it but would need a sponsor. I have been trouble shooting federal programs since 73 and was a science and technology policy journalist 94-04, before I wandered into scientific communication via OSTI. I would not start with Coburn but with the Democrats who put him over the top. That is the real story, Dems giving a minority member a political victory like this. My conjecture is that NSF crossed the advocacy line but who knows? The more I think about it the less political sense it makes.

                Posted by David Wojick | Mar 28, 2013, 11:40 am
            • Coburn is a medical doctor. Based on what I’ve read about him and what little I have heard him say in speeches and press conferences, I would feel quite safe in saying that he views political science as a science, but not as valuable a scientific discipline (economically or academically) as physics, chemistry, biology, or the like.

              Notice also the tone of his letter. If we take him at his word (which is a reasonable starting point, in my opinion), then what he wants the NSF to do is to increase its funding focus on mathematics and “science such as engineering, biology, physics, and technology.” To borrow Rick’s point, Coburn is stating that he wants funded NSF programs to return economic benefits in proportion to the resources they consume.

              Now, it could be that Coburn’s letter is a made-up load of manure to provide cover for his dislike of anti-Republican polysci research, but until and unless there is evidence of that, I think that we have to give him the benefit of the doubt and accept the point that his letter establishes his views. If you want to discreetly ask his staffers for background information, and if you will protect your sources if/when you publish, then we may be more enlightened, but at this point, the available evidence doesn’t lend itself to a partisan political motivation for the amendment but instead sets forth a politically and economically conservative reason for the amendment. I would point out also that some Democrats are politically and economically conservative, which may be why they lent their support to this amendment and helped put it over the top in votes.

              I could be wrong, of course. This could be an entirely partisan political attempt to silence unwanted research findings. But I don’t think we have the evidence at hand to make that judgment.

              Just my $0.02.

              Posted by rhwoodman | Mar 30, 2013, 8:00 am
              • I agree with your analysis. Of course those who dislike the outcome are not likely to give the benefit of doubt.

                Posted by David Wojick | Mar 30, 2013, 9:40 am
      • Here is one response that explains how this cut in funding will hurt, especially for the large data-gathering projects like the time-series National Election Studies. This same article mentions that the NSF funds 61% of overall basic social science research.

        “The new amendment, part of legislation that passed the House on Thursday, is intended to stop the NSF from supporting research on the workings of American democracy and government. Its backers have repeatedly cast scorn on the very idea that political science tells us anything about how democracy and government work. Coburn himself has suggested that Americans who care about electoral politics don’t need data sources like the American National Election Studies project. Instead, he claims that they can get all the information they need from Fox News, MSNBC, and Internet commentary.

        “Coburn is dead wrong. The American National Election Studies project has been gathering comprehensive data on public opinion and elections since 1948, giving political scientists, economists, and sociologists a comprehensive map of how the American electorate has changed over the better part of a century. Researchers on the project conduct hours-long in-person interviews with thousands of Americans from all walks of life, gathering far richer data than any public-opinion poll. Eliminating its funds will destroy, for future generations, a key element of our national historical record.

        “The amendment will damage public debate. A new generation of data-driven journalists like Ezra Klein, Ramesh Ponnuru, Matthew Yglesias, and Philip Klein are using quantitative results to transform public debate about politics, replacing unsubstantiated opinions with evidence-based argument. That transformation requires high-quality, publicly accessible data—the kind of data often supported by the NSF.

        “Finally, it hurts politics. Contrary to Coburn, Flake, and Rep. Darrell E. Issa of California, the U.S. Congress could use more good social science, not less. Take any urgent policy question—school choice, taxation, global warming—and you will find a multitude of quarreling voices, each trying to shout down the others. Many of those voices belong to lobbyists paid to defend their clients’ interests or to people whose political commitments trump their commitment to the facts. It is very difficult to figure out who is telling the truth and who is not.”

        Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Mar 26, 2013, 5:02 pm
  4. The point that surprised me in this article is that Mr. Anderson’s “economic realist” lobe didn’t have a problem with Mr. Coburn picking and choosing particular fields to which heightened scrutiny must be applied. Surely that undercuts the putative goals of the funding package: economic efficiency and funding good science.

    Politicians, who are responsive to numerous stimuli (their personal ideologies and their own funders’ desires, to name two major ones) are not, I would submit, the most “economically efficient” arbiters of the value of research agendas.

    Posted by lquilter | Mar 28, 2013, 6:34 am
    • As I pointed out above, all federally funded research programs (or agendas) require approval by Congressional Committees, typically four. Zeroing a field by amendment is unusual but programs are frequently cut or terminated via the authorization and appropriation process. Congress pays the bills and politicians are the leaders of democratic governments. They do not however pick the researchers. That is an executive function left to experts in the funding agencies. Perhaps you have a different system in mind?

      Posted by David Wojick | Mar 28, 2013, 7:18 am
    • I passed along Lori’s comment to the Economic Realist Lobe, and received the following in reply:

      Where did Ms. Quilter get the impression that I think politicians are good at making wise decisions about science? I simply accept the reality that a) it’s the job of politicians to allocate tax dollars, and b) that tax dollars are limited. She can argue with the system if she wants, but I accept the system. I’m more interested in arguing about the criteria Coburn applied in making his decision; if the criteria make sense, then his motives are ultimately not very relevant. The same is true if they don’t make sense.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Mar 28, 2013, 8:48 am
      • The important decision is not Coburn’s but rather that the amendment passed in a Democrat controlled Senate. How and why did this happen? See more below.

        Posted by David Wojick | Mar 28, 2013, 9:38 am
  5. To me the important question is why this amendment passed? Any member can drop a wacky bill in the hopper and many do but they just go nowhere. This amendment sets a nasty precedent which the Senate is usually reluctant to do. Note too that the Democrats control the Senate. So what caused this to pass? Ironically this is a political science question.

    Posted by David Wojick | Mar 28, 2013, 7:30 am
    • Here’s a quote from The Chronicle of Higher Education:

      “Mr. Coburn’s amendment was incorporated into the bill without a recorded vote, following negotiations with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, who is chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. The amendment appears to have been a compromise from Mr. Coburn’s original proposal, which would have eliminated the NSF’s political-science program altogether, cut the agency’s budget by $10-million, and given most of that money to the NIH for cancer research, Mr. Brintnall said.”

      From: http://chronicle.com/article/Senate-Moves-to-Limit-NSF/138027/

      There was no recorded vote, so we will not likely find out who among the Democrats voted for it, but the Democrats got lots of cover for this vote, because there was no recorded vote. On the plus side, the compromise saves the political science program (with limits on funding), and the spending bill that was passed expires in September 2013. There was quite a bit of pressure to pass SOME spending bill, which is why the bill as amended passed 73-26.

      There is also this piece from Prospect.org:

      But this time around, Senator Mikulski, as appropriations chair, was shepherding a difficult piece of legislation through the body as Republicans threatened a government shutdown. Democratic leaders were afraid that if Coburn didn’t get his way on the amendment, he would slow down the continuing resolution. That might have doomed the thing, with Congress headed to recess. Instead, it seems Coburn modified his original amendment to assuage the Democrats. His new language permitted the NSF to allow exceptions for political projects that “promote national security or the economic interests” of the country. Instead of cutting the $10 million allotted for the Political Science Program, the measure simply prohibits grants in political science. The NSF gets to keep the money for other purposes.

      “It reflects the nature of the Senate more than it reflects any shifting views or shifting support,” says Thomas Mann, political scientist and congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. “If there were a [roll call] vote on this, it never would have passed.” The House has already shown its support for a similar measure. The die has been cast, at least in the short term. Democrats will have a chance to undo the measure in October, when Congress will need to pass another budget for the next fiscal year. (emphasis added)

      I think this explains why the amendment passed. Whether or not the Senate undoes the amendment remains to be seen, but it will depend on whether the Republicans can gather strength during the intervening months before spending comes up for debate again.

      Posted by rhwoodman | Mar 30, 2013, 8:34 am
      • Good stuff. So basically Coburn found a lever and used it to get his pet project through the system. That is part of the art of Congressional action. Note however the reference to House support for similar action, so something basic may be going on. AAAS says the amount is $11 million and this is 90% or so of all federally funded polysci research, which is a very small number. There may be a basic issue as to whether the feds should do political research?

        Posted by David Wojick | Mar 30, 2013, 9:48 am
        • I think there is a logically arguable question as to whether the Feds should do political research. I’m not a political scientist but a biochemist (currently masquerading as an organic chemist and QC manager :-) ). For purely selfish reasons I’d love to see more Federal money in the physical sciences; however, there are legitimate reasons why political science research should be funded for the Federal government.

          My Republican and Libertarian friends and family members disagree. My Libertarian brother is a huge fan of small, minimally intrusive government. For him, only research that has economic paybacks for the nation or that improves national defense and security is justified. My conservative parents don’t want the Federal government frittering away taxpayer dollars on research that cannot provide economic or national security benefits. Other friends of mine in Conservative and Libertarian circles distrust the Federal government enormously, and they view the government’s funding of things like political science research as something sinister, even if they can’t define or explain what is sinister about it.

          My own view is that the Federal government should engage in political science research. To assuage Conservative/Libertarian fears, we may want the government funding agency (NSF or whoever) to take extra steps to hold the research at more than arm’s length from any appearance of impropriety. Political scientists could also help themselves by talking about their research in terms of national security enhancements, national defense benefits, national economic security, and national economic benefits. Remember, the lesson that Republicans learned the hard way this past election (and not all of them have learned it) is that both what you say and how you say it are important if you want people to actually hear the content of the message. Not everything Republicans say is stupid, nor is everything that Democrats say wise, but the Democrats over the last 6-7 years have learned how to communicate their message in palatable, even persuasive, ways, while the Republicans have been remarkably tone deaf. The point about Republican and Democratic messaging is that the same thing applies to political scientists. They need to communicate what they do, why they do it, how they do it, and what benefits obtain from their research in such ways that people actually want to give them money and support their work. That cuts against the grain for many academicians, because it sounds too much like “sales”, but the truth is that if the taxpayer if footing the bill, then the taxpayer needs to be persuaded that the bill is worth footing.

          Posted by rhwoodman | Mar 30, 2013, 10:29 am
          • The objection is simply that having agencies run by political appointees fund political research that can potentially help their party or hurt their opponents is a conflict of interest. That the Executive branch should not fund political activity is a basic principle.

            I will pass on your political analysis although I think it is mistaken. But it is a good example of what taxpayers should not be paying for.

            Posted by David Wojick | Mar 30, 2013, 9:58 pm

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