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Senators Discuss Political Science Research Funding on Senate Floor

On October 7, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced an amendment (S.AMDT.2631) to the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010 (HR 2847) that would eliminate funding for political science research programs within the National Science Foundation (NSF). Senator Coburn presented the amendment last week, and drew for his October 13 floor remarks on examples of recent, NSF political science grants to critique the discipline. “The real world would never fund such stupidness,” stated Coburn. “They would never allow millions and millions of dollars every year to be spent on silly things to help politicians to understand why they spin or why they do not answer questions or why people might be for or against war. It is pretty easy to figure out.” Senator Coburn also argued that in light of the country’s economic downturn, NSF should only fund “real science” and referenced the size of the endowments at universities that have received funding as a further reason for terminating federal investment. 

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, spoke in opposition to the amendment and warned against targeting an individual discipline or trivializing academic research or academics.   As evidence of the value of political science, Mikulski noted the achievement of Elinor Ostrom, a trained political scientist and past NSF grant recipient, who recently received the Nobel Prize in economics; she also cited the relationship between the Department of Defense and the NSF to fund a variety of social science research projects related to the study of authoritarian regimes, the strategic impact of religious and cultural change, terrorist organizations, and other new dimensions in national security. 

Senator Mikulski lauded the work of the National Science Foundation and its support for social science research generally. “We have to keep this going,” she said. “Our National Science Foundation and our other scientific institutions must go where no thought has gone before. That is the point of discovery. Discovery has led to innovation. Innovation leads to the new ideas that lead to the new jobs in our society. A society that doesn’t innovate stagnates. And innovation comes not only in engineering, though much needed; it doesn’t only come in physics, though much desired; it doesn’t come only in medicine, in the biological research, though much revered; a lot of this is the basic social sciences.”

In response to the amendment, the American Political Science Association (APSA) has launched an online petition to save the NSF political science program and sent an open letter to the Senate opposing the amendment on October 19.   The petition, launched on October 7, has already garnered more than 3,700 signers. These documents, and additional information posted by APSA, can be viewed at

Related content: Budget & Appropriations, NSF