11 May 2012

Jeff Flake's War on Political Science

Here we go again. Another member of Congress has decided to introduce an amendment to the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act which would ban the National Science Foundation from spending money on political science research. And if this story seems familiar, it should. I wrote about Senator Tom Coburn's (R-OK) amendment to the 2010 CJSRA Appropriations Act which would have done the same thing back in October 2009 in my post Is Political Science a Science? You can read the particulars of that fiasco by clicking on the link, but the gist is, Sen. Coburn submitted the amendment, which read, "None of the funds appropriated under 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."

So two nights ago, attached to the 2013 CSJRA Appropriations Act (HR5326), Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ06) submitted House Amendment 1094: "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." Eerily similar to Sen. Coburn's amendment, which failed to pass in 2009. Earlier that day, Congressman Flake attempted to cut over $1.2 billion from the NSF budget in order to save taxpayers from purportedly frivolous scientific research studies in everything from biology to sociology to astronomy, and tried to convince the chamber that NSF spending should be brought back to 2008 pre-stimulus levels (the 2011 NSF budget was approximately $6.8 billion - about the same level as the country of Singapore spends on their National Science Foundation). 

In advocating for the anti-political science amendment, Congressman Flake, who holds a Master's degree in political science himself, it must be said, called government funding of political science research "a meritless program" (Congressional Record H2543) and espoused that since 75% of the grants being given by NSF were going to large universities, shutting down the NSF political science grant programs wouldn't make much of a difference anyway. On behalf of the 25% minority (and the 75% majority regardless of the numbers) I beg to differ. 

Congressman Flake eventually got his anti-political science amendment to pass, posting on his Facebook page that 
"You'll be pleased to know that my amendment to the Commerce/State/Justice appropriations bill to prohibit more spending on questionable political science studies passed early this morning by a vote of 218-208. One of the studies taxpayers recently funded, for $200,000, asked 'Why political candidates make vague statements.' I guess it's because...well, because, well, our children are our future?... Enough said. Good riddance to this waste of your money!"
The study Congressman Flake cites is NSF Award #0921283, given to a pair of researchers collaborating on the research question of "why do candidates employ ambiguity, and what are the consequences?" (Please note that nowhere in the award do they ask the question "why do candidates make vague statements?" This is ambiguity on the part of Congressman Flake.) The award was handed out in 2009 (not exactly recently, given that most research studies of this nature take less than two years to complete) for $216,884.  The project involves undergraduate and graduate students helping practice doing scholarly research and employs potentially innovative new methods for experimentally studying campaigns. Surely the congressman, with his Master's in political science, realizes that the advancement of research and scientific knowledge depends on studies like these.

What's even more interesting to me is that Congressman Flake has singled out the NSF political science research as something that is going to save taxpayers money. In fact, it's not "good riddance to this waste of your money" at all. Congressman Flake's amendment doesn't cut any money from NSF's budget. It redirects the funds that were going to be spend on political science research questions to other hard science or social science research questions. Instead of "Why political candidates make vague statements," the money could be going to "Peer Influence and Aesthetic Taste" (Award #1203426 researching if people's opinions are influenced by what other people think) or "Major and Minor Element Ordering in Minerals" (Award #8318674). Both of these studies have just as much - or in Congressman Flake's case, just as little - merit as any political science research funded by NSF. So why the war on political science?

Speaking of money, I wondered just how much money was going to political science research from NSF in the first place. I mean, Congressman Flake had to be targeting political science because it represented some major source of research funding that stands out against the backdrop of all other research, right? To get something in your sights, you first have to be able to have it large enough to see. According to NSF's website, the organization made 74 grant awards in fiscal year 2011 (FY2011, going from October 1, 2010 to September 30, 2011) for a grand total of $6,229,523. Out of the entirety of the FY2011 NSF budget, this represents 0.00092% of all NSF appropriations ($6.8 billion). Congressman Flake is targeting political science research that represents nine-ten-thousandths of one percent of the budget. (I did try to find statistics showing whether or not this was greater than or less than the amount the US Congress spends on Post-it notes and pens in a given fiscal year, but such numbers have eluded me. I suspect the Post-its win, though.)

Sadly, this cut-everything Congress decided that NSF's political science funding deserved to be transferred to other departments, and late Wednesday night (Thursday morning in DC), H Amdt. 1094 passed the House of Representatives by a roll call vote of 218-208 with five not voting. Five Democrats sided with 213 Republicans to pass the amendment, while 27 Republicans and 181 Democrats had a little more respect for scientific research.

(The Republicans who voted against the amendment are: Aderholt, Bartlett, Biggert, Bilbray, Cole, Dent, Dold, Fitzpatrick, Gibson, Grimm, Hanna, Hayworth, Hurt, Johnson (IL), Kelly, King (NY), Latham, Lucas, Platts, Reichert, Renacci, Stivers, Thompson (PA), Tiberi, Tipton, Turner (OH), and Young (IN).)

This has been Congressman (and current Senatorial candidate) Jeff Flake's big problem for me: he tends to focus on issues which sound great to fiscal conservatives - cutting poli-sci money from a big government science foundation - but which really make absolutely no difference in the grand scheme of reforming anything in Washington DC. Even the Congressman's quest to eliminate earmarks, while a good idea, hasn't really resulted in saving the taxpayer any money. That money that would have been hidden as an earmark in some giant bill somewhere simply got shunted off and spent on some other program that Congressman Flake probably had just as much of a problem with. I keep wondering why the most conservative member of Congress - as he is consistently voted by a variety of groups - doesn't use his influence and his stature to tackle entitlement reforms for Medicare/Medicaid, cut spending to the bloated Department of Defense, or work on the other actual problems this country faces instead of spending time and energy trying to redistribute money for political science research!

The congressman calls many of the studies done by NSF "meritless" and questionable. I have to wonder who he is that he can prognosticate the future and know what research will be valuable and what will not. I also wonder why he thinks it is a good idea for the federal government to be in the business of telling people what science is questionable. That kind of thinking leads in one direction: toward government control of ideas and knowledge, and you get "1984" all over again.

Congressman Flake has disappointed me with this amendment, but there is hope. The Senate and the House will have to meet in conference committee to hash out the differences between their passed versions of the Act. It is possible that the amendment will be taken out during that time. I urge everyone who reads this to contact Congressman Flake's office at the numbers below and make your voices heard. It might not be a bad idea to let your own congressmen and women know your thoughts as well! Together we can help beat back a bad idea.

Jeff Flake:
Washington, DC office: 202-225-2635
Mesa, AZ district office: 480-833-0092
Mailing Address: 240 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515

Feel free also to leave comments below. I will work to forward any I get to the congressman's office myself.


  1. I disagree. This doesn't stop knowledge, it just cuts back out of control spending. Flake is right and should go after more programs after he becomes our next Senator.
    -Max was here.

  2. I'm thinking you didn't read my post entirely, Max. This amendment doesn't cut anything. It just says that the money which will be spent regardless can't be spend for political science. It hurts research in the political science field. Thanks for the reply, but I think you are wrong.

  3. Hey, I just sold back 20 books, I can assure you I wont be reading anything in great detail for a while! Now, I like Flake's efforts in cutting back any spending, and next year he can cut back these earmarks all together. This is a start.
    -Max was here again.

  4. To each their own, Max. You're a business major. I wouldn't expect you to understand the value of research... lol!

  5. Research?...that can be outsourced!
    What is the your Vice President pick for President Romney?

  6. Feel free to chat with me about that on FB. I'd like to keep this space for blog comments on the topic.

  7. Back to the topic, all tax payer's spending starts out with good intentions, then it ends up like this:


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