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.