New Version of Coburn Amendment in Wings

Tom CoburnIn an echo of his efforts he’s been making for half a decade, Sen. Tom Coburn is trying to restrict federal funding for political science research to projects that promote national security or the economic interests of the United States.

The Oklahoma Republican on Thursday filed an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2015 funding bill for Commerce, Justice and Science, the bureaucratic bucket that includes the National Science Foundation. While last year’s successful push to tack the amendment onto a vital continuing budget resolution drew howls from the social science community, don’t expect to see Coburn’s latest measure — or any others attached to the CJS bill — move forward or back soon. (The earlier amendment expired in January.)

The spending bill, which had been bundled with other spending measures, was up for debate on the Senate floor Wednesday and Thursday until backroom partisan bickering over amendments led Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to sideline the bill. As CQ News detailed the process on Thursday, “The Senate technically moved to proceed to the spending bill (HR 4660), but quickly moved on to bring up another bill (S 2363). Republicans and Democrats took to the floor to insist that they still want to find a way forward, but the move puts the fate of this year’s appropriations process in doubt.”

Coburn’s latest effort to weed out what he’s called “low priority” political science projects mirrors last year’s: “None of the funds made available by this Act,” reads the amendment, “may be used to carry out the functions of the Political Science Programs of the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

However, its reception may be different this year. The CJS bill, while ultimately important, lacks the urgency that surrounded keeping the entire federal bureaucracy functioning, and so smallish amendments that may be distasteful to some in the majority may not be accepted as readily. An effort to include Coburn language in the FY2014 spending bill, for example, failed in January. Still, the CJS bill and the amendments in its orbit eventually will revive; some funding bill must eventually pass to pay for the various agencies, ranging from the FBI to NOAA, it covers.

Coburn, who hasn’t commented publicly yet on his latest amendment, in the past suggested that political science research often wastes federal funding, produces pointless results and diverts NSF spending from “real” science. (Coburn, by the way, is a medical doctor.) As he wrote in a 2009 position paper (PDF here), “it is difficult, even for the most creative scientist, to link NSF‟s political science findings to the advancement of cures to cancer or any other disease. In fact, it may indicate that NSF either does not know how to properly spend the significant amounts of taxpayer dollars it has been entrusted with.”

That said, political science spending within the NSF is petite at best. All the social science spending in the current year’s $7.2 billion NSF budget comes to 3.5 percent of the total; as political scientist Seth Masket has noted, political science in turn “receives roughly $10 million annually in NSF research support,” or 4 percent of that 3.5 percent. Or as another political scientist, the Monkey Cage’s Henry Farrell wrote, “a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of government spending [is cited] as a major example of government waste.”

Opponents of the Coburn amendment don’t usually start their arguments on the fiscal side, though, preferring to decry the intrusion of politics into academic and peer-reviewed decision-making and to demonstrate how good political science leads to good policy. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Farrell continued:

Publicly financed social science imposes a tax on dishonest arguments. The NSF requires good research methods and hard results, which can puncture inflated claims. It pushes for well-documented and accessible research, making it easier to figure out who is dealing from the bottom of the deck. Among those recognizing the benefits of NSF-backed research is … none other than Tom Coburn himself, who turned to NSF-supported data gathered by the political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones when he wanted to defend the Government Accountability Office.

“It’s valid for Congress to say it wants to favor one area of research,” political scientist Justin Esarey told ScienceInsider’s Jeffrey Mervis in January. “But this is not the right way to do that.”

This may be Coburn’s last shot at restricting social science spending. He’s retiring in December.


Coburn’s isn’t the only amendment to the CJS bill alarming social scientists. Senator David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, has filed an amendment to prohibit the Census Bureau from spending money on the 2020 Census unless it includes questions on U.S. citizenship and immigration status. The Census Project argues that asking such question would scare off some respondents, resulting in an intentionally inaccurate count and so is “a thinly veiled attempt to exclude noncitizens and/or undocumented residents from the census counts used for congressional apportionment.”

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Dick Heupel

An economic developer for more than 30 years – and a proponent of small central government – I can see the argument from both sides. Who would argue against federal seed funding for cancer research, birth defects, volcanic activity aka “hard sciences?” Perhaps those that forget the Department of Defense and space programs circa 1960 that fueled a tech boom in the 1980s and 90s that facilitated the gadgets we can’t live without today. At the same time, our modern communication devices contribute to a continued shrinkage of the globe, nearly day-by-day. Base-lined with widely disparate cultures, religions, and customs,… Read more »

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