Limiting Scientific Research

A new amendment to a bill authorizing funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) prohibits researchers from studying politics.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)—a medical doctor and three-time cancer survivor— won a battle in his on-going war with the NSF by amending the Full-Year Appropriations Act to only allow for political science research that promotes “national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

The rest of the Senate agreed and passed the amendment earlier this week.

The American Political Science Association is crying foul, saying that allowing politicians to dictate what the NSF studies is a gross intrusion into the scientific process. 

“The amendment creates an exceptionally dangerous slippery slope. While political science research is most immediately affected, at risk is any and all research in any and all disciplines funded by the NSF,” they said in a press release. “The amendment makes all scientific research vulnerable to the whims of political pressure.”

‘Dr. No’ and the NSF: an On-going Battle

Sen. Coburn is one of three medical doctors serving in the U.S. Senate, but he’s the only one known as “Dr. No” for regularly putting a hold on bills he disagrees with. And what’s the first study he mentioned in his letter to Dr. Subra Suresh, head of the NSF?

“Americans’ attitudes towards the U.S. Senate filibuster,” a study that cost $251,525.

So, a politician who uses the filibuster regularly doesn’t want the NSF to study it. Seems legit. 

Then again, Sen. Coburn is trying to trim the fat from research budgets after an audit showed the NSF spent $309 million in the second half of 2012 alone.  

“I’m pleased the Senate accepted an amendment that restricts funding to low-priority political science grants,” Sen. Coburn said in a statement. "There is no reason to spend $251,000 studying Americans' attitudes toward the U.S. Senate when citizens can figure that out for free.”

Sen. Coburn said he would prefer NSF funds go toward promising research that would “save an American’s life from a threatening condition or advance America’s competitiveness in the world.”

This isn't the first time Sen. Coburn has fought to end social research from the NSF.

In 2011, he released a 73-page report critical of the NSF, dismissing much of their research as “silly” and calling for the agency to decrease the amount of social science research it conducts.  

The report was widely criticized by academics and others in the scientific community, who said that Coburn’s view of the agency’s work was inaccurate and merely political posturing.  

“Singling out any one field of science is short-sighted and misguided, and poses a serious threat to the independence and integrity of the National Science Foundation,” the American Political Science Association said of the latest changes. “And shackling political science within the national science agenda is a remarkable embarrassment for the world's exemplary democracy.” 

It appears that now that science has been removed from political science, it’s just politics as usual.

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