Nearly missed by the Beltway media, a tiny little amendment was brought to the House floor on May 9th by Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona. Here’s what the gentleman suggested should be law:
None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation.
I’m sorry, what? (I should say, this is about the most readable thing you’re likely to find in the Congressional Record; it’s like trying to read appendices from the Lord of the Rings while on Ambien.) The gist here is that Rep. Flake has a problem with public funding of political science research — and that’s not to mean “science with a political edge” (like climate change), but good old, liberal arts PoliSci. He personally considers it a waste of money and so proposed an amendment that would end its pursuit at the National Science Foundation.
You may already be sensing why this is bad. He’s not simply saying, “I will punish the NSF by reducing its funding,” but rather, “I deem this area of research to be pointless, and I forbid you to engage in it.”
The invaluable Ezra Klein sends up flares about the implications of legislation like this (emphasis mine):
… the NSF runs a widely respected peer-review program that decides what science to fund. If Flake wanted to reduce the funding available to the NSF in total, that would be one thing (and, to be fair to Flake, he has proposed that in the past). But what he’s doing here is telling the NSF what is and isn’t acceptable science to fund. That’s not how scientific decisions are supposed to work. And the effect could be chilling.
As they often do, Flake dressed up his opposition with paeans to fiscal responsibility and disdain for Ivy League universities. But the heart of the matter is that Flake — a person with no scientific expertise whatsoever — is inserting himself into a debate about what areas of inquiry are and are not worth pursuing, based on his own politics and notions of governance, all of which are irrelevant.
This actually gives him too much credit — he’s not inserting himself into a debate in order to engage in said debate. He’s entered the debate hall, knocked over the podiums, and declared himself the winner.
This is not an argument over the merits of a particular study’s findings, it’s a declaration that the entire field is worthless. And based on his own words on the floor of the House, it doesn’t sound like his understanding of political science is terribly sophisticated, as he trots out the old anti-spending canard, mining the NSF’s budget for things that can be phrased derisively:
So what kind of research is NSF charging to our credit card? $700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis; $600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do… I think we can answer that question in about 5 minutes when we vote on this amendment because I can tell you, people out there want us to quit funding projects like this.
$301,000 to study gender and political ambition among high school and college students; $200,000 to study to determine why political candidates make vague statements. $200,000 to study why political candidates make vague statements. That’s what we’re paying for here.
These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them. How can we justify this outcome?
Doesn’t this sound remarkably similar to what a certain former vice-presidential candidate once lamented about the study of fruit flies? I mean, how does he know society won’t benefit from this work? If anything, though, it’s worse, because it’s not about cutting off some silly-sounding earmark. It’s about upending a peer-review process in order to squelch an entire field of study. Imagine, if you will, that Rep. Flake decided that he felt that geology was a silly waste of time, since we know pretty much everything we need to know about rocks and stuff. This is what we’re talking about.
Flake’s amendment passed on Thursday.
Science needs to be done for its own sake. Areas of inquiry need to be pursued vigorously and utterly free of short-term, uninformed political interference. If we’re going to have a National Science Foundation, we need to let it do science. If Flake is setting a precedent, we’ll have only a small handful of preferred subjects that can be investigated. And when even those few subjects have a Sword of Damocles dangling over them in the shape of a GOP House Member, its hard to see how answers conveniently follow the dictates of the politicians, right along with the questions.
Oh, and Flake is running for Senate this year. Just so you know.