Opinion writer June 4, 2012

The Republican-dominated House has passed an amendment to cut off funding for political science research through the National Science Foundation (NSF), and you and I should be outraged.

It’s not the money, of course: Only $11 million of the NSF’s $7 billion-plus budget goes to poli sci research. It’s the principle of the thing. We just can’t let politicians like Jeff Flake, the Republican from Arizona who sponsored the ban, decide what constitutes science worthy of federal support.

Or so we are told.

Christopher Zorn, a political scientist at Penn State University, writes in a Web posting that it would be “dangerous” if “individual members of Congress should sit in judgment over individual programs of scientific ­research.”

Eleven political science department chairs from blue-chip universities, headed by Nolan McCarty of Princeton, have published a manifesto of their own, bemoaning the loss of “important public benefits” if the House bill ever becomes law.

Sorry, guys. I’m just not feeling it.

Why shouldn’t Congress, or its “individual members,” define “science” for purposes of federal funding? That’s what Congress did when it decided in the late 1960s to include political science in the NSF.

It horrifies Zorn that Rep. Flake would override the NSF’s “peer review system” and the “hundreds of very smart people” who participate in it. “Politicization of the scientific process,” he cries.

I would have thought that the politicization comes from the political science academy’s dependence on federal money in the first place. He who pays the piper calls the tune — and in our democracy, Congress pays the piper.

People like Flake, though undoubtedly biased and ideological, are accountable to the voters and taxpayers. Nobody elected those “hundreds of very smart people” who have grown accustomed to distributing the public’s money.

As for the great public benefits from NSF-funded political science research, I’m agnostic. Perhaps it was frivolous to spend $301,000 on a study of gender and political ambition among students, as Flake charges. Or perhaps a report on economic sanctions was a good taxpayer investment, as McCarty and his fellow department chairs insist.

The relevant question, however, is whether society could have reaped equal or greater benefits through other uses of the money — and how unreasonable it would be to ask the political scientists to rely on non-federal support.

On the first point, the answer is obviously “yes.” Flake’s amendment doesn’t even cut the NSF’s total budget. Rather, it shifts the political science money to other areas, such as physics, engineering and chemistry. As for the second point, Flake notes that most of the poli sci program’s money has gone to universities with endowments of more than $1 billion.

If this research is as valuable as its proponents say, someone other than the U.S. Treasury will pay for it.

If anything, Flake’s amendment does not go far enough: the NSF shouldn’t fund any social science.

The private sector chronically underinvests in basic scientific research; the costs and risks are relatively high, and the benefits relatively hard to commercialize. Government support compensates for this “market failure,” enabling society to reap “positive externalities” — economic, environmental or military.

Federal funding for mathematics, engineering and other “hard” sciences is appropriate. In these fields, researchers can test their hypotheses under controlled conditions; then those experiments can be repeated by others.

Though quantitative methods may rule economics, political science and psychology, these disciplines can never achieve the objectivity of the natural sciences. Those who study social behavior — or fund studies of it — are inevitably influenced by value judgments, left, right and center. And unlike hypotheses in the hard sciences, hypotheses about society usually can’t be proven or disproven by experimentation. Society is not a laboratory.

The NSF’s budget includes $247.3 million for social sciences. At a time of trillion-dollar deficits, and possible cuts to defense, food stamps and other vital programs, this is a luxury we can live without. Cut the NSF’s entire social science budget. Use half the savings for hard science and the rest to reduce the deficit.

In their open letter, McCarty and his colleagues actually boast of an unspecified NSF-backed study that explored “the political factors that lead to excessive spending by state or national governments.”

I can only assume it was a paper about dubious programs in the federal budget, and the special interest groups that defend them with self-serving arguments — like these professors themselves.

lanec@washpost.com