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National Science Foundation dodges Congressional politics by canceling new political science research

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US Capitol 5 (Verge Stock)
US Capitol 5 (Verge Stock)

Some scientists' fears may be coming true. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which is one of the primary sources of funding for science research in the US, has canceled its annual August call for political science grant proposals in what many suspect is a direct result of Congressional legislation limiting the types of research the agency can support. Henry Farrell, a George Washington University political scientist told Nature that the move "is somewhere between devastating and crippling."

On its website, the NSF says "uncertainty" over its budget for fiscal 2014 is behind the decision to not accept any new political science grant proposals this August. Scientists and experts alike think politics is the main culprit, however. A late-addition to the 2013 spending bill stipulated that the NSF could only support political science research projects "that the director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States." The provision adds that the director of the agency must publish an explanation of how each approved proposal adheres to those goals, and it prevents the agency from financing research that in any way duplicates other federally-funded studies.

NSF struggles to determine which political science research is "promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States"

The limitations sound reasonable at first, but by putting politics into the system, some argue, Congress is effectively undercutting the peer review processes that see worthwhile projects get funded. And by prohibiting the NSF from supporting multiple scientists working on the same problem, the agency can't take multiple approaches to finding the best solutions to scientific endeavors. Some of the provision's language comes from Senator Tom Coburn (R, OK), an outspoken critic of political science, and the federal funds at stake are relatively minor — the NSF has a roughly $10 million annual budget for research in the field.

In June the NSF made its first attempt to work with Congress' limitations on political science funding, saying that it would "continue to engage panels to review grant proposals" while asking those panels to "provide input on whether proposals meet one or both of the additional criteria required" by the spending bill. It appears the NSF was unable to grapple with converting Congress' provisions into a policy for evaluating and approving grants, however. Nature suggests that the NSF is saving its funds for next year with hopes that the controls over political science research won't make their way into the 2014 spending bill. A most recent draft of that bill doesn't include the language that requires research to further US economic or national security interests.