Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) has gotten himself into a bullfight.

Yesterday Proxmire awarded his September "Golden Fleece of the Month" to the National Science Foundation for giving an anthropologist $9,992 to study the political significance of bullfighting in Spain.

The award is a Proxmire tradition meant to call attention to what he considers "the most wasteful, ridiculous or ironic use of federal funds." To the NSF, however, this award was a red flag.

John Yellen, director of NSF's anthropology program, defended the bullfighting study as a scientifically worthy project aimed at "learning how nations are held together politically and culturally."

According to the anthropologist who got the grant, Carrie Douglass of the University of Virginia, bullfights and bull festivals have been a Spanish political battleground for two centuries. The well-known bullfights that take place in arenas with matadors are all under the control of the national government. In these the bulls are killed. By contrast, bull festivals, such as the running of bulls through village streets in Pamplona, are staged by local political leaders and the bulls, or often cows, are not killed.

When Francisco Franco was Spain's dictator, he banned bull festivals as a means of weakening local political power and asserting the strength of the central government. Now in democratic Spain, Douglass said, the local events are back but the ways in which they are staged in some parts of the country often amount to assertions of local power, especially in separatist regions such as Basque.

"What's interesting," Douglass said, "is the role of the bulls throughout Spanish culture. Polls show that about half the people in Spain reject the bullfights. They're embarrassed by the barbarity. But just about everyone favors the local bull festivals. They couldn't imagine celebrating the feast day of the local saint without the running of the bulls."

Douglass said her research was meant to explore the role of "los toros," which can refer to either type of event, as a cultural unifier of Spain while also serving as a symbol of the long struggle for power between Spain's culturally diverse regions and its national government.

Proxmire, saying "the NSF has given the American taxpayer a bum steer" by sponsoring such research, suggested that a reading of Ernest Hemingway would give just as much understanding of Spanish culture.

"I'm sure Hemingway has real insight into what a bullfight is like and what it's like to be a matador, but that's not what this study was about," Yellen said. "This is about learning how nations are held together politically and culturally. That's something we certainly do feel is worth supporting."

Despite the timing of Proxmire's award, the grant was given a year and a half ago and Douglass, a doctoral candidate at Virginia, has completed her research and written her dissertation. In addition to the NSF money, Douglass estimates she spent about $8,000 of her own on the project.

Douglass, who speaks Spanish fluently and has visited the country many times, said she began her research in 1983 and has spent about a year in Spain doing the research, most of the effort going into interviewing local and national leaders.

Proxmire said that although Douglass was "obviously highly qualified" and that he had nothing against her study, "what I do object to is, given the giant federal budget deficit and the needs of other government programs, the decision by the NSF to fund this study. Clearly it is time for the NSF to grab the bull by the horns and get its priorities straight."

Yellen said the grant was one of 50 given last year (each for $10,000 or less) to support doctoral candidates in anthropology who propose research projects deemed worthy by a panel of established researchers around the country. Douglass' proposal, like many, was rejected at first and sent back with suggestions for improvements. These were made and her second try received even closer scrutiny before being approved.