Publication Date

May 1, 2013

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

On March 20, 2013, the United States Senate approved an amendment offered by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013, which would restrict the use of federal funds in the National Science Foundation's Political Science Program. In response, the Council of the American Historical Association approved the following statement of concern:

The American Historical Association vigorously opposes the recent Senate appropriations amendment restricting National Science Foundation funding for research in political science to specific topics. The amendment, which requires the agency to limit funding to projects which it can certify “as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States,” is wrong-headed in many ways.

First, the amendment represents an intrusion by politicians into the well-established and generally successful peer-review process by which the agency reviews grant applications. Peer review ensures that grant decisions are made by individuals with the necessary expertise through a reliable, widely accepted, process which minimizes bias. Imposing even innocuous-sounding political criteria for research compromises the autonomy that is necessary for intellectual progress-the first responsibility of the National Science Foundation.

Second, the amendment fundamentally misunderstands what constitutes useful inquiry in a free society. While some research does, primarily, provide instrumental data that help government officials pursue "national interests" on which a strong consensus exists, other-equally important-research helps to inform the citizenry about how well or poorly different parts of government are functioning. Political scientists explore what opinions citizens hold and have held about politics, government, and society, thereby helping us to comprehend the role of institutions in civil society. That Senator Coburn, the sponsor of the amendment, would cite "studies of presidential executive power and Americans' attitudes toward the Senate filibuster" as examples of research that should not be funded indicates, at best, a very cramped understanding of the kinds of knowledge that promote a healthy, democratic polity. This amendment endangers the sort of scrutiny and transparency of all political institutions that Congress ought to support.

Third, the casual invocation of serving "the national interest" as a necessary condition for funding is both logically flawed and politically dangerous. While this may sound like a common-sense standard, there is in fact great disagreement over what "the national interest" is in particular cases, and much of the most valuable work of social scientists occurs when they contribute to an informed debate about precisely that question. We cannot assume that everyone shares an understanding of how best to promote 'the national security or the economic interests of the United States." Placing interpretation of these matters in the hands of individual officials (who most likely don't desire such responsibility anyway) constitutes a serious threat to free inquiry, and to the open, informed debate that our society needs.

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