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Jeff Flake’s plan to politicize the National Science Foundation

at 01:25 PM ET, 05/12/2012

On Thursday, on a mostly party-line vote, the House passed an amendment by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to prohibit the National Science Foundation from funding political science research. And, in doing so, it politicized one of the main ways this country funds scientific research.


Rep. Jeff Flake wants to tell the National Science Foundation what is and isn’t science. (CHARLIE LEIGHT/THE REPUBLIC)
“My amendment does not reduce funding for the NSF,” he explained. Rather, “this amendment is simply oriented toward ensuring, at the least, that the NSF does not waste taxpayer dollars on a meritless program.” Well, what Flake considers a meritless program, anyway.

As Christopher Zorn writes, 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.

Flake was quick to give examples of the “waste” that motivated his amendment. There was the “$700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis” and the “$600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.” In other words, Flake didn’t like the kind of research that the NSF was funding in the political science arena, and so he barred the NSF from funding political science at all.

Now imagine you’re part of a discipline that isn’t political science, but that relies on NSF funding. Or imagine you’re on one of the NSF panels that funds those disciplines. Think you’ll be a bit more careful about submitting or greenlighting work on climate change? Of course you will.

If Flake had cut NSF funding, that would be one thing. Instead, he inserted politics — and his personal preferences — into the NSF’s funding-review process. That’s a much more dangerous precedent to set.

I have conflicted feelings about the public money that goes to academic research — including political science — in this country. I admire and rely on the work that comes out of these disciplines. But for all the public money that goes to support them, there’s a decided lack of public-spiritedness in how they act.

The research is often locked away in pricey journals. There’s a premium placed on unnecessary convoluted rhetoric that confuses and dissuades interested outsiders. There’s almost no effort put into connecting research with the public debate — and academics who try and engage in it often risk professional and social sanction. If it were up to me, any research that took even a dollar of taxpayer funds would have to be in an open-access journal and stored in a publicly searchable repository. While much of this research deserves public support, the prevailing mores in academia don’t.

But I have no conflicted feelings about wanting scientific decisions to remain free from meddling congressmen. Perhaps there’s some process by which the NSF could do a better job judging research proposals. But I’m quite sure that process doesn’t include Jeff Flake looking over the NSF’s shoulder, telling it which subjects he likes and which he doesn’t.

 
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