Mixing politics and research: responses to NSF cancellation of a political science grant cycle

It is happening:  politics is invading public research funding decisions in a major way.  The National Science Foundation, a major grant provider for political science research, has cancelled its next funding cycle citing uncertainty about their budget.  The federal grant agency, which funds many kinds of science and social science research, one of which is my home discipline of political science, found itself under fire from Republican lawmakers who were targeting the political science program.  The New Republic has reported a clearly political motive for the attack.  Back in March, Timothy Noah at TNR wrote:

The real reason the NSF’s political science program is being eliminated is that Republicans are ideologically hostile to its content, not its cost. Jeff Flake, the Republican congressman from Arizona who sponsored a similar bill that cleared the House last year, dislikes the program because it spent “$700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis.” Senator Tom Coburn, the Republican from Oklahoma who sponsored the Senate amendment, doesn’t like it because he’s tired of reading studies about the public’s distaste for the filibuster, the GOP’s most cherished nullification tool.

A Nature article speculates that the Political Science program director at NSF may have strategically cancelled the upcoming grant cycle hoping some of the politics will blow over. Specifically, the director may be hoping that the proposals that NSF certify only research that is "'groundbreaking' of 'the finest quality,' does not duplicate any other federally-funded research, and will 'advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and ... secure the national defense'", will be removed by the next grant cycle.  Many have noted that these criteria would replace the NSF's rigorous peer review process.  I would argue that given the subjective criteria laid out, it does something worse, it subjects political science research (for no other discipline has been singled out to meet this standard) to a political litmus test.

In case there is any further question about the politically motivated nature of the attack on the Political Science program in particular at NSF, John Sides at the Monkey Cage reported that when he called a staffer on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to ask what political scientists could do to help preserve NSF funding, he was told the they were looking for, "'bite-sized' stories about political science research, and especially research that would be appealing to more conservative members of the committee. " (original emphasis)  Sides followed up and asked for examples that might meet that criteria and the staffer "suggested research about national security, transparency, and how to make government smaller and/or smarter." 

To paraphrase Madison in The Federalist Papers No. 10, the proposed solution is a remedy surely worse than the disease itself.  Political Science, and the academy in general, are in trouble if our ability to preserve NSF funding is contingent upon our adeptness in shoehorning research into a conservative frame.

I and others in my discipline have argued that the merits of NSF funding is its ability to fund graduate students and facilitate ambitious research involving expensive datasets or extensive fieldwork--all subject to a very rigorous peer review process.  Sides noted that according to the House staffer he spoke with, such arguments and those about the general utility of political science research are not as useful as identifying specific projects that dovetail with conservative concerns, although he noted that even then it may not convince.  There is also the structural constraint that apparently most universities that obtain NSF funding are in states with Democratic Senators, so the electoral pressures brought might be limited in effect. 

Surely political scientists collectively who study politics and government institutions can figure out a multi-pronged response given these structural constraints.  I'm talking to you: parties scholars, game theorists, historical instituionalists, interest group scholars, and political behavioralists.  This is real world problem should be a comprehensive exam question.

For now, what can we do?  We can still contact all our elected representatives using this portal here.  Indeed I live in a state with two Democratic Senators, but my hope is that my letter will educate them about the need for NSF research, the importance of the peer review process, and the politics of this push, so that they understand what's at stake as well to better defend the program.