April 8, 2013

EDITORIAL: Limiting Restrictions On Scholarly Research

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On March 20, the U.S. Senate passed the Coburn Amendment, which prohibits the National Science Foundation from funding political science research unless it promotes U.S. national security or economic interests. This move is alarming for a number of reasons. There will be damaging cutbacks to political science research. Additionally, the new criteria for evaluating research proposals will restrict the breadth of the discipline. Given the seemingly political motivation behind its passage and its potential harm to the study of political science, we believe the Senate was remiss in passing this amendment.

The NSF is critical to political science research in the U.S., funding 61 percent of all research in the discipline nationwide. At Cornell, one in five of all external political science grants given to graduate students and faculty are awarded by the NSF. The impact these restrictions will have on this academic field could be devastating. Yet political science funding accounts for less than .01 percent of NSF’s total budget allocations. Given the already small scale of political science research funding, the move seems to have been made with politics, rather than economics, in mind. The arguably symbolic shift in priorities the Coburn Amendment will achieve does not justify the negative impact the policy will have on political science research in the U.S.

The Senate’s decision to support only research that promotes U.S. interests is an unsettling departure from academic freedom. Though the country faces tough economic times, those hardships cannot and should not be solved by a governmental dictation of what research American scholars ought to pursue. Decisions made about funding allocations at the micro-level should be made by scientists, not politicians. The “promoting national security or the economic interests of the U.S.” requirement for NSF funding not only undermines the autonomy of our nation’s scientists, it also threatens to cause a chilling effect on scholarship in the U.S.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) may be right in saying that the NSF has failed to responsibly allocate taxpayer funds to critical research projects. Perhaps they have, as he argues, failed to properly manage their priorities in awarding grants. Nonetheless, a more targeted and narrowly-tailored approach to holding the NSF accountable would have been far more appropriate. Instead, the Senate has dealt a painful blow to political science research in the U.S. in order to make a political point.