Constitutional law making political science harder

In 1998, the Supreme Court decided the First Amendment case NEA v. Finley.[1]  In the case, artists were challenging new funding regulations placed on the National Endowment of the Arts.  Specifically, the new regulations required the NEA to consider “general standards of decency” when awarding grants.  Congress enacted the new rules for funding after several federally funded exhibits created significant controversy.  The public outrage surrounding the Mapplethorpe exhibit and the perception that the work was obscene and/or pornographic had at least one profile gallery cancel their plans to host the federally funded art[2] and lead Congress to alter their directives to the NEA to avoid funding such controversial artwork.    In this case the Court essentially said that its Congress’ money and they could spend it how they choose.  There is no right to receive grant money or right to have your expression funded; if government wishes to advantage some content over others when providing competitive funding, it may due so.

How does this ruling make it harder to conduct political science research?  Today’s Congress is extremely polarized and gridlocked. It has been well documented that many conservative Republicans generally eschew scientific knowledge that contradicts their view of the world (see Chris Mooney’s War on Science).[3]  Apparently, the animus extends to work that seeks to describe and explain how our government works, or perhaps why it is not working very well these days.  Rather than understand why we are seeing greater polarization in Congress or why this state of polarization is stalling the legislative machinery more so than in earlier eras of polarization, it is much more prudent to simply ignore the issue like the proverbial ostrich.

Now, we know that members of Congress cannot stop political science research without running awry of the First Amendment.  They can, however, refuse to spend their money on it.  And that is exactly what is currently proposed in the Senate.  Senator Coburn, and expected to be attached to the budget resolution for 2014.  The text of the amendment reads as follows:

Purpose: To prohibit the use of funds to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.

Why would the gentleman from Oklahoma push to defund political science?  His press secretary put it this way, “Political Science would be better left to pundits and voters, ” or “Rather than ramping up the amount spent on political science and other social sciences, NSF’s mission should be redirected…”[4] To his credit, Coburn cushions this by saying this redirection in funds should be for medicinal or technological research projects.[5]

No political scientist would gainsay medical or technological research.  However for members of Congress to use the constitutional power to spend with bias recognized in Finley to remain ignorant of the work of the government or trends therein is more than simply putting one’s head in the sand.  However, as Finley clearly shows us, political science or any social science has no right to government funding and if a political scientist is applying for NSF funding, she may find her academic freedom or speech chilled.

If it passes, will the Coburn amendment stop social science?  Certainly not.  NSF funding was never guaranteed and much work continues without its support.  Will we lose critical information?  Certainly.  If the National Election Study misses an election or two, our ability to understand longitudinal trends and current elections will be undermined.  Perhaps if there is a threat to incumbency advantage or a realignment of voters from the two major parties that threaten his safe seat, Mr. Coburn will be more willing to fund political science—at least fund it enough to figure out how to keep his job.

[3] No doubt there are also Democrats and Independents that suffer from the same parochial blinders.

[5] .  To his press secretary’s detriment, pundits and voters do not conduct political science research when they lobby, proselytize, or vote.  As any Introduction to American Government student can attest: politics is not political science.

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Filed under Freedom of Speech, Assembly, and Association

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