Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Senator Coburn, the NSF, and the Nobel Prize in Economics

I have frequently been a fan of Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). He has been a strong proponent of earmark reform, and opposed much of the pork-barrel spending in Congress. He correctly points out that these spending projects are a source of much corruption in Congress. He has also been principled in this fight by not seeking earmarks for his own state. Recently, however, he has set his sights on an unworthy cause. Last week, Coburn introduced an appropriations bill amendment that would cut all funding for political science research from the National Science Foundation.

In a statement on his proposed amendment he writes,
When Americans think of the National Science Foundation, they think of cross-cutting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Most would be surprised to hear that the agency spent $91.3 million over the last 10 years on political “science” and $325 million last year alone on social studies and economics.

By putting science in quotes, Coburn is indicating that he doesn't think political science is real science. Only the physical sciences are real science and worthy of funding, he suggests.  Physical science funding, “can yield real improvements in the lives of everyone.” Political science research cannot do that, apparently, because political scientists research, “citizenship, government, and politics.” Imagine, for a moment, a world that did not have citizenship, government, and politics and you should grasp the absurdity of this statement. The people who devote research to such an important part of our lives are certainly as worthy of government funding as the physical sciences.  The fact that this statement comes from someone devoted to public service in government and politics makes it even more confounding. Why would Coburn devote his life to citizenship, government, and politics if he thought they did not “yield real improvements in the lives of everyone”?  As I noted with his devotion to earmark reform, Coburn wants to improve how government functions.  He should want to increase funding, therefore, for research that helps us understand how to make government better.

Ironically, this week brought news that a political scientist has won a Nobel Prize in economics for research that was partially funded by...(drum roll)...the National Science Foundation! Dr. Elinor Ostrom won the prize for research that shows how the tragedy of the commons (a common political science problem) is important for understanding economics. Here is a clip of her explaining some of the basis of her research.

The Coburn amendment will be voted on sometime later this week. You can watch a clip of him introducing the amendment on the Senate floor (where he compares the funding to waterboarding our kids), with a rebuttal by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), here.  Just fast forward to the 131 minute mark.  You can sign a petition asking your Senators to oppose the amendment here.

I don't think the amendment has much chance of passage. Coburn's amendments rarely pass. But, I think political scientists should consider this a wake-up call.  We need to do a better job of explaining the importance of our research to the general public. For my part, I will try to use this blog more often for that purpose.

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