April 3, 2013

National Science Foundation to Limit Political Science Research Grants

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After Congress mandated a decrease in National Science Foundation funding for research on political science, professors said the change would have a direct impact on graduate students and re­searchers at Cornell.

On Mar. 20, the U.S. Senate passed the Coburn Amend­ment, which prohibits the National Science Foun­dation from supporting research in political science that does not promote the U.S.’s national security or economic interests.

The amendment was a revision of an earlier plan to eliminate the NSF’s political science budget altogether, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

With this amendment, some professors are worried about how research being done in political science at Cornell will be affected.

According to Prof. Nicolas van de Walle, chair of the Department of Government, graduate students in the government department apply for grants from the NSF’s political science program every year. Two government graduate students are currently conducting research funded by such grants. Additionally, one in five external grants received by faculty and graduate students at Cornell for political science research comes from the NSF.

According to The Chronicle, the NSF supports 61 percent of social science research. Researchers — including those at Cornell — can apply to other foundations for funding as a result of the Senate amendment, but for many people who have lost NSF funding, it will be hard to replace, van der Walle said.

According to van de Walle — who has received NSF funding for studies on democratization in Africa — the NSF provides both small individual grants for students and professors and larger grants for broader data collection and survey research projects.

One project that will be adversely affected by the amendment, he said, is the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s national election surveys, which have been conducted since the end of World War II.

Out of the $5 billion the NSF puts toward of its programs annually, only $7 million — or less than 0.01 percent — goes toward political science programs, according to van der Walle. When this funding is divided across the staff and students in the 150 or so political science departments in the United States, the amount of money available to the profession is relatively small, van de Walle said.

“The impact is more symbolic and political,” van de Walle said. “It’s scary when major decisions about what gets funded become politically mediated … There’s really no role in politics in deciding where the small amounts of money that are allocated to science should go. That should be decided by the top scientists, rather than by politicians.”

Prof. Christine Leuenberger, science and technology studies, said she believes the current system used to assess what research should be funded is effective. She said NSF proposals are judged in terms of research project’s intellectual merit and potential broader impact.

“Instead of cutting funds because fundamental research supposedly doesn’t sufficiently increase the nation’s ‘competitiveness and economic development’, it would be better to invest in trends that are already happening in various universities — a push toward more engaged research and learning,” Leuenberger said in an email.

Leuenberger also said a better way to create effective and balanced solutions to the nation’s issues is to provide opportunities for those affected to communicate.

“We need more platforms where academics, policy makers and non-government organization representatives can meet in order to come up with evidence-based policies to better tackle social and political problems,” Leuenberger said.

Angie Boyce ’14, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Science & Technology Studies who has received money from the NSF, said she is very concerned about the future of scientific research as a whole.

“Is this going to be an evaluation criteria that will affect all fields funded by the NSF? Is this going to be a sign of things to come for my field?” Boyce said. “It’s important to prioritize — not everything can be funded at every level — but it seems like there are bigger fish to fry.”

Original Author: Alexa Davis