what political science should learn from the Coburn amendment

A few weeks ago, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma tried to ban the NSF from supporting political science research. And of course, a lot of folks in the academy voiced their objection. But there’s a broader question for political science: Why is the political science profession so reliant on NSF funding? Repeatedly, people said that a majority of political science projects are funded with NSF funds. Is this true? If so, then it is a precarious state of affairs.

Academic disciplines should rely on a diverse group of supporters. If Congress deems social science a worthy effort, then great. But if they don’t, then we should still be ok. Relying on the NSF is analogous to a business having a single wealthy customer. That’s usually a bad business model. Instead, social scientists should actively court different sources of funding ranging from the public sector, non-profits, individuals, and the corporate world. If you look at sociology, you see many important projects funded by all kinds of folks. The General Social Survey is your typical big project funded by the NSF. Ron Burt obtained a lot of his data from private consulting gigs. Merton’s reference group research was done for the Dept of War during WWII. A lot of Columbia sociology in the 50s and 60s was sponsored by for-profit groups in New York.

It is up to each researcher to decide what kind of funding they are willing to pursue. But collectively, we should encourage funding from many sources, or we’ll be at the mercy of the Tom Coburns of the world.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 3, 2013 at 12:27 am

11 Responses

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  1. Oy. It seems to me Coburn has already won. “It’s a marketplace. Just take your business elsewhere.” Etc.



    April 3, 2013 at 3:23 am

  2. I find it very hard to imagine how “encouraging funding from many sources” would compensate for politicians deciding to cut most or all social science funding. You can kiss goodbye the GSS, ANES, PSID, NLSY, the NCES education datasets (HSB/NELS/ELS/ECLS/HSLS), not to mention all of the studies done by the National Center for Health Statistics. Maybe we’ll get to a point where politicians deem unemployment rates unimportant (let’s just focus on GDP!) and then the CPS will get axed.

    The social sciences’ ability to speak to important issues would be curtailed. E.g. I believe most of what we know about the current state of social mobility in the United States comes from PSID.



    April 3, 2013 at 5:06 am

  3. Qualitative social science research also has very few funders, particularly if it has an international component. Although NSF leans quantitative, it does fund a few qualitative projects (I just reviewed a proposal). The dissertation improvement grants in particular are a real boon to graduate students doing qualitative work, and they provide supplemental funding for international work. This is especially important with the disappearance of Title VI area studies funds in the last few years. There really is very little market for qualitative social science, so without NSF funding, it will decline.



    April 3, 2013 at 12:23 pm

  4. National Center for Health Statistics is under HHS…



    April 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm

  5. Medical schools are in a similar, but probably worse, position, with essentially their entire research funding alongside their evaluation of academic merit tied up in receipt of NIH grants, particuly R01s. One way of saying this is “there are no medical schools anymore, there’s only the NIH.” The upshot is that the institutional capacity of the medical school is evacuated by ceding authority to NIH, which in turn is subject to the whims of congressional funding.



    April 3, 2013 at 2:34 pm

  6. AlreadyPassedMyQuals, right, I wasn’t just talking about NSF funding. It’s the same principal. If Congress doesn’t want federal money to be spent on social science research, the next logical step is to prohibit HHS from doing social science research, or NCES/DOE from doing social science research, or the Census Bureau/DOL from doing the CPS or NLSY.



    April 3, 2013 at 2:51 pm

  7. In general, applied social science research (e,g,, around education policy, and around healthcare cost & quality), while certainly effected by the sequestration, is somewhat more diversified than research strictly in social science. Foundations and private firms frequently fund large research projects with clear policy impacts. In order to get paid to do research, one must research things of substantial interest to SOMEONE with $$ — be that congress or one of these other potential sources of funding. Perhaps a different business model is in order?


    sean m

    April 3, 2013 at 4:08 pm

  8. The Regnerus affair is a notorious example of the “business model” sean m mentioned above. Also, the infamous lewis powell memo from the 1970s and the resulting rise of the right’s para-academy of think tanks.

    Basically, neoliberalism sucks…

    PS – Sherkat has been warning of this for years in soc. rel. See



    April 3, 2013 at 9:00 pm

  9. Fascinating that an article about Coburn’s attack on poly sci research funded by NSF generates a “Chicken Little” thread about social science funding. Having said that, I would worry about the sustainability of any discipline that builds its research portfolio to a large degree by using public money to analyze publicly funded datasets. Not much value added…



    April 5, 2013 at 12:06 am

  10. Last week a Republican senator has introduced a bill prohibiting the Census bureau from doing anything BUT the decennial census. I am not a Congress expert and I do not know the chances of this bill becoming a reality. But I think Coburn opened a door to attempts that, if successful, will really hurt the social sciences. This is not so much about disciplinary sustainability so much as, “will ANYONE have access to data that speaks to really important issues, such as inequality and social mobility?”



    April 23, 2013 at 6:38 pm

  11. Sorry, it was a Republican representative, not a Senator.



    April 23, 2013 at 6:38 pm

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