National Science Foundation Cancels Call for New Political Science Grant Proposals

Wow. This had been in the pipeline for a while, but I never got around to blogging about it. (First they came for…)

A couple of weeks before the deadline for new grant proposals in political science were due, the NSF has canceled the program, at least for this grant cycle. No explicit reason was given, but everyone knows why it happened. Back in March, Congress passed the Coburn Amendment to the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013, which limits political science funding to research that “promotes national security or the economic interests of the United States.” That’s almost impossible standard to demonstrate, of course, so the NSF just canceled all of the funding, rather than invite endless Congressional hearings about this or that grant proposal. Annual NSF expenditures on political science amount to about $10 million, which is nothing on the scale of government budgets but an awful lot to the actual researchers.

(I don’t want to be needlessly partisan by suggesting that all Republicans in Congress are either dangerous demagogues or complete chowderheads. But Tom Coburn, R-OK, is a shining example of both.)

This is a disaster, and bodes very ill for the future. I certainly wouldn’t want to defend my own research as promoting national security or the US economy. Because, frankly, it doesn’t. Even Coburn isn’t going after physics (yet), but it’s not an unrealistic dystopian scenario to imagine that a criterion like that could be applied across the board to all federal support for science. Conservatives are already up in arms about biologists studying duck penises. (It’s pretty clear that someone working for the GOP has a Google alert that searches for the word “penis.”)

Meanwhile, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has just come out arguing against all public funding for science, full stop. I’m sure the free market will happily step in there and help us out with particle physics and cosmology.

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30 Responses to National Science Foundation Cancels Call for New Political Science Grant Proposals

  1. Physicalist says:

    It’s hard for me to express my opinion about this without using profanity.

  2. Sili says:

    Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must swear.

  3. Stephen says:

    Blech! You could argue that all political science is relevant in some way to economic interests or national security since the politicians we the voters elect impact the economy/security all the time with their decisions. The current GOP being a perfect example.
    I think Tom Coburn’s next target is obvious: climate change research. Why bother researching climate change when the Rapture is going to happen soon anyways? (Coburn actually believes this; kid you not.)
    Now I think the current grant system has become too conservative and needs radical reform such as moving away from traditional grant proposals and giving more grants “to the person” based on their academic/research records such that innovative ideas don’t get strangled in the cradle by grant reviewers before they are actually tested scientifically. But Congressional interference like Coburn’s is going to further kill innovation across the board. Yikes.

  4. Doc C says:

    Advancing human civilization must be a cooperative effort. Unfortunately, politics is not very cooperative in the US, or many other places these days, by any interest groups. It’s time for a re-set.

  5. Gizelle Janine says:


  6. Josh says:

    I have a slightly strange view on public funding of science. I am unsure about whether the government should fund science but not for the dumb libertarian reasons from that Cato institute article. Basically, I think it’s not fair that some of us (scientists like myself!) get to have the public fund something that we enjoy while most people (like everyone else) is left to the whims of the market and the times. Why is what I do so cool and special, compared to stuff that other people do, that I deserve to be paid by the government? The usual argument is something along the lines of “Oh science helps create technology” but I, like Sean, don’t do science to help create technology and I, like Sean, feel like it’s EXTREMELY, EXCEEDINGLY unlikely that my research will ever have a practical impact on people’s lives. I think that public funding of science creates a kind of classism that I find abhorrent.

    Maybe it’s more clear if I say it like this: I feel like EVERYONE should be able to do the thing that they love to do and easily make ends meet. But since that’s not the case, it’s not clear to me why I get to do to do the thing that I love to do and get paid for it.

  7. Marty Tysanner says:

    An economist has made a compelling case that government funded research, not private enterprise, is actually the source of the biggest innovative breakthroughs. This indicates that seriously cutting back publicly funded research would actually undermine the private sector over the long term. The private sector is a key player in bringing innovations to the population, of course, and it is ultimately what reaps the economic rewards (and, often, then works hard to avoid paying taxes that ultimately support the research that benefits them, but that’s another matter…).

  8. Brett says:

    I imagine a future where Eli Musk and Yuri Milner are the first Trillionaires and everyone in congress keeps bashing each others’ heads against the wall trying to think of how they can try to get in on the fortune and what they could have done differently leading up to this moment. Of course congress is completely unable to think of anything they could have possibly done differently; oh no, they did everything right.

  9. Johnathan Octavian Cobalt says:

    I know what you meant, but, you never know what someone is willing to fund if you don’t ask them or present a reason why they should fund it. A movie called Interstellar has been in the works for years and nobody wanted to make a move on it until someone talked Christopher Nolan into nabbing it from Steven Spielberg (thank you Jebus) at what could be considered the peak of Nolan’s career when he has more influence than anyone else in that town. Hollywood rakes in upwards of $10 billion each year and the industry is full of atheists who treat science like a religion. How is Kip Thorne? I guess there are 3 types of people in the triangle of responsibility in communicating science. Scientists who do the work, communicators that make it happen, and readers that fund whatever it is that the communicators are able to get through the readers’ barriers.

    You would think that America would at least be mature enough to grow past the level of believing in the completely ridiculous fairy tale side of religion and at least step up to the level of claiming that it’s all just stories to guide us by that were never meant to be taken literally. But no; still full of batshit crazy assholes who are probably horrible people behind closed doors doing all sorts of morally screwed up things.

  10. Derek S says:

    While Coburn is a Republican, his amendment was passed by a voice vote in the Senate, which has been controlled by Democrats for the past six years. I suppose that makes a lot of Democrats villains, too. Yes? No?

  11. Sean Carroll says:

    Democrats are certainly villainous when they don’t do enough to prevent Republicans from destroying the country.

  12. John Duffield says:

    It’s getting scarey, and I fear it’s going to get worse. IMHO there’s been a rising tide of disillusion amongst public and politicians, because there hasn’t been much progress in HEP in recent years, and this (unfairly) taints not just the whole of physics, but all of science. It isn’t just some party thing. Unzicker gets the sentiment across, and I think it’s important that people really try to address it instead of shutting it out.

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  16. Dean says:

    [ … ]
    Maybe it’s more clear if I say it like this: I feel like EVERYONE should be able to do the thing that they love to do and easily make ends meet. But since that’s not the case, it’s not clear to me why I get to do to do the thing that I love to do and get paid for it.

    Often research is underpaid for the level of education required. I suspect that many researchers are working for much less than they would be in industry.

  17. Gizelle Janine says:

    @Derek @John: I’ll never understand why its a free for all bashing period for science. Its like science is this hated kid in elementary school that gets beat up every afternoon for being smart. Its that depressing to me.

  18. Dave Hooke says:

    This is just one more thing that makes me wonder what may become of the US over the next fifty to hundred years.

  19. John Duffield says:

    @Gizelle: It’s more like you’ve been giving your dinner money to the smart kid because he’s going to help you with your homework. Only he doesn’t, then your patience runs out, so no more dinner money. But, yes, it’s depressing. I had high hopes for that kid.

  20. Brett says:

    @ Gizelle , it mostly comes from hardcore, extreme right wing Republicans that read the bible as a word for word, literal translation of events. Ever since the 1950s, that group of people has been claiming that the end times are near. When every American was issued a social security number, holy crap, they all flipped out and started quoting the book of revelations where it has some mention that every person will be identified as a number instead of a name. They also tend to get upset when the sciences prove that the bible couldn’t possibly be a historical text. It’s the same thing that every country deals with, a group of ignorant radicals. It’s no coincidence that they are also the party of conspiracy nuts.

    It also has something to do with the end of cold war era spending. It’s hard to start a space race with the Taliban…the race pretty much ends when their adladl based propulsion system fails. Without another superpower to fight with, it’s hard to sneak in long term science projects. Which brings me to my point. I don’t like the way China looks at us.

  21. Gizelle Janine says:

    @Brett: Well that got cleared up quite nicely. I really appreciate that! You answered my question awesomely 🙂 But no actual logical justification and scary as s@$&. As far as China goes, that’s a “No comment”. Its the same kind of logic that I used thinking about wanting to go to Japan. Oh and we’re still stuck thinking about the Cold War too. How evolved of us. F@$!ng embarrassing.

  22. Gizelle Janine says:

    @John: That’s pretty well thought out for a kid. 😀

  23. Albert says:

    The Cato piece misquotes Mansfield (1998): it says “And Adam Smith’s contention that academic science is only a trivial contributor to new technology has moreover been confirmed. In two papers published in 1991 and 1998, Mansfield showed that the overwhelming source of new technologies was companies’ own R&D, and that academic research accounted for only 5 per cent of companies’ new sales …”.

    Actually Mansfield writes: “Estimates of the total 1994 sales by major firms of new products first commercialized in 1991–1994 that were based on recent academic research are provided in Table 2 for all seven industries combined. Innovations that could not have been developed [without substantial delay] in the absence of recent academic research accounted for over 5% of the total sales [my emphasis] of all major firms. Table 2 also shows the total savings by major firms in these industries due to new processes first commercialized in 1991–1994 and based on recent academic research. Innovations that could not have been developed [without substantial delay] in the absence of recent academic research resulted in cost savings of about 2%. These figures are somewhat larger than those obtained for 1975–1985.

    A more recent study on the relation between innovation and government funded labs is
    here. This tells a different story than the Cato piece will want to believe us.

  24. Chris says:

    Political Science is pretty much an oxymoron. Perhaps someone in congress figured out the queen of the soft sciences was self admittedly more ‘political’ than ‘science’. It doesn’t take much Googling to see how many articles have been written by political scientists themselves questioning their objectivity, whether their field of study was actually science or just advocacy to their own political beliefs.
    Having read the above responses and seeing how Sean himself is openly partisan and of the opinion that ” Democrats are certainly villainous when they don’t do enough to prevent Republicans from destroying the country.”, how can anyone not see why government funding of soft science for political objectives is problematic? If political scientists are half as convinced of their political positions as Sean, how will the research not be biased towards a particular political viewpoint? If you use government money to pursue political advocacy through the proxy of ‘scientific research’, don’t be surprised when your political opponents (of either party) figure out your objectives are political and try to cut your funding.

  25. John says:

    They should just cut all science funding. It isn’t like they are going to discover anything new and profound anyways that scientist don’t think they already know. But they discovered the Higgs-Like Boson, you say? They can’t even prove it is the Higgs Boson. I don’t think we will need to worry about who they are going to be handing out the Nobel Prizes for this anytime soon when it doesn’t even produce the correct type of particles when it doesn’t have charge.

    They might as well just hand money out to layman crackpots, when the people they are giving the money too already think that they know something about science that hasn’t already been discovered. What use could a new theory provide when it will only be knocked down by complete skepticism anyways, because it is not known science?