The National Science Foundation is facing an unprecedented congressional intervention in its internal decision-making process. Last week, the U.S. House passed an amendment for a bill that would make it illegal for the NSF to fund political science research, something it has been doing for decades. The vote, motivated by partisan opposition to a handful of research projects, such as “Understanding the Origins of the Gender Gap in Political Ambition,” paves the way for further congressional interference in scientific research. Such interference will seriously hinder the NSF’s ability to serve as a clearinghouse for the nation’s most promising research. The amendment must be stopped in the Senate.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.) proposed the “Flake amendment,” which prohibits the NSF from funding political science research, as he believes it is “a waste of taxpayer dollars.” The representative cited, among others, a project that requested “$600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.” The House voted on this amendment May 9, and it passed by a vote of 218-208. The current amendment is Representative Flake’s second attempt to cut NSF spending. Last year, his proposal to trim the general NSF budget failed in a 291-121 vote.
Representative Flake’s singling out of an individual academic area should give us pause. Federal research funding drives innovation at the University of Michigan; last year federal money accounted for $800 million of the University’s research expenditures. An attack on the NSF may signal trouble for other, larger federal research agencies. Flake is a known opponent of research funding, and his attacks on political science should be taken not as a sincere evaluation of that field’s social value, but as a politician’s search for a vulnerable target. Most research is valuable, though not all project titles make that value immediately obvious.
There is tremendous irony in Rep. Flake’s opposition to political science research. The congressman himself holds a master’s degree in political science. Further, the research Flake cites to explain his amendment has immediate, tangible implications for the U.S. government. It matters a great deal whether, as Flake describes the project he opposes, “policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.” The particular funding Flake proposes to cut is money that would be used to study how the government — of which Congressman Flake is a part — does its job.
American political leaders have long recognized that academic research is valuable. They have also, since creating the NSF, respected Congress’s decision to give scientific experts responsibility over research funding rather than elected officials and civil servants. The NSF’s leadership is chosen by the president, but the original law’s requirement that members of the foundation’s board be “eminent in their field” ensures that the NSF’s governing body can put good research ahead of politics. Federal funding is one of the most important sources of money for academic research in this country. Previous Congresses understood how important it was for decisions about research to be made by experts. That’s why they created the NSF.