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How to Engage the Flake Amendment

- May 11, 2012

This is a guest post by Christopher Zorn.  He is is the Liberal Arts Research Professor of Political Science, Professor of Sociology and Crime, Law, and Justice (by courtesy), and Affiliate Professor of Law at Pennsylvania State University.  He was previosuly Visiting Scientist and Program Director for the Law and Social Science Program at the National Science Foundation (2003-2005).


I appreciate all the demonstrations of the value of political science research, both at the Monkey Cage and elsewhere. But while I agree our research is valuable, framing our institutional response to the amendment in that way is just engaging Representative Flake on his own terms. The value of political science research is not — by a large margin — the most important aspect of the amendment’s passage, nor is focusing on that value the way to win any debate.

The panelists, ad hoc reviewers, and program officers at NSF operate in a scientific peer review system that is second to none. (During my time at NSF, even the NIH folks often acknowledged that the NSF’s review process was better than theirs). Moreover the funding rate at the NSF’s Political Science program is below 20%; that is, there are four proposals that are declined for every one that is funded. That means that hundreds of very smart people spent thousands of hours evaluating many, many proposals to distribute the funding that Representative Flake finds unnecessary.

The direct implication of the Flake amendment is that we should substitute his judgment for all of those individuals’, regarding the merits of both the work that has been funded to date and all potential future work that NSF might fund in our field. It is hard to believe that anyone would take seriously such a call to substitute political for scientific judgment if the program in question was physics, or computer science, or even economics. But even if we grant that Representative Flake may have some degree of expertise in political science that qualifies him to pass judgment on the projects that have received support, are we also to believe that (a) there was nothing that should have been funded in previous years, and that (b) there will never be any political science research in the future that merits NSF support?

More broadly (and as I allude to on the ELS blog), the precedent this sets is seriously dangerous. The idea that individual members of Congress should sit in judgment over individual programs of scientific research opens up the possibility of the politicization of the scientific process by people across the political spectrum. This is of course not limited to NSF: NIH, NIJ, DOD, etc. could all see their research arms’ funding compromised by legislators looking to make some political hay. Don’t approve of homosexuality? Defund Prevention Science at DAR/NIMH. Against contraception? Get rid of CRH at NICHD. And so forth.

These sorts of points are, in my opinion, better arguments to make than those about the value of political science research. If Representative Flake’s amendment is seen as compromising the integrity of the scientific review process, and doing so in a way that threatens to politicize the actions of the NSF and other similar agencies, his proposal will suddenly appear much less palatable.