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Tom Coburn Flip-Flops on NSF Funding of Political Science Research

- December 20, 2011

As has been thoroughly documented on The Monkey Cage, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is no fan of the National Science Foundation’s funding of political science research.  Consider, for example, this:

bq. “Political science would be better left to pundits and voters,” said Don Tatro, Senator Coburn’s press secretary, in an interview. “Federal research dollars should go to scientists who work on finding solutions for people with severe disabilities, or the next generation of biofuels, or engineering breakthroughs.”

Or this:

bq. Rather than ramping up the amount spent on political science and other social and behavioral research, NSF’s mission should be redirected towards truly transformative sciences with practical uses outside of academic circles and clear benefits to mankind and the world.

Apparently that was then, and this is now.  In the course of defending the Government Accountability Office, Coburn documents a decline in congressional oversight.  He writes:

bq. Data from the University of Texas at Austin shows a more gradual but steady decline in Congress’ hearing load since the early 1980’s, despite the increase in budgets and congressional staff size. In the 96th Congress (1979-1980) there were nearly 4,000 hearings held during the session. Today, the numbers rarely reach 3,000 and are frequently closer to 2,500. The single biggest decline came in the 104th Congress (1995-1996), which saw activity drop sharply by more than one thousand hearings, but the numbers have never quite recovered.

There’s a graph accompanying that passage.  The graph has this footnote:

bq. The data used here were originally collected by Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones, with the support of National Science Foundation grant number SBR 9320922, and were distributed through the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. Neither NSF nor the original collectors of the data bear any responsibility for the analysis reported here.

Here is the press release from the University of Texas Department of Government about Coburn’s use of these data.  And here is an excerpt from NSF grant 9320922, which was awarded in 1994:

bq. This research focuses on the creation of a large, comprehensive database. When complete, it will allow users to trace public attention, media coverage, congressional attention, legislative action, and budgetary outlays in the federal government to every major social problem that the U.S. government has faced since World War Two.

It cost American taxpayers $270,000.  In inflation-adjusted dollars, that’s about 13% of what taxpayers pay for Tom Coburn every year.

I’m very pleased that Senator Coburn has discovered some value in federally funded political science research.  I look forward to a fruitful collaboration between his office and political scientists everywhere.

[Photo credit: Medill DC]