Political science research in jeopardy

Political science professor Forrest Maltzman used federal dollars to study why some laws are slapped with amendments more than others. But, ironically, one measure inked on Capitol Hill last week could put projects like his in jeopardy.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., attached an amendment to a congressional spending bill to defund $10 million of political science research financed by the National Science Foundation. Congress approved the measure last week, part of a larger package to avoid a government shutdown.

“I am somebody who thinks that this is a very small investment, and understanding how institutions work can frequently save countries, nations, states and cities significant resources,” Maltzman, who is also the senior vice provost for academic affairs, said. “So as a political scientist, I am disappointed that our government does not see the value in political science research.”

This year, four political science professors at GW are working with NSF grants worth a total of about $690,000 on topics like how Americans’ attitudes toward social groups like Muslims affect their political beliefs. The roster of professors who are NSF-funded includes the department’s most prominent faces, like associate professor John Sides.

The cuts – which will shave off a sliver of the federal budget through September – may have a chilling effect on political science research. But it does not affect other social science research, like anthropology or sociology, and instead limits agencies to fund only projects that promote “national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

Coburn, who has railed against political science funding for years in the Senate, said defunding work in that field could help pay for most life-saving medical research.

“Studies of presidential executive power and Americans’ attitudes toward the Senate filibuster hold little promise to save an American’s life from a threatening condition or to advance America’s competitiveness in the world,” Coburn wrote in a letter to NSF director Subra Suresh last week.

Maltzman has worked with five NSF grants over his career. He said the government funding rollback would harm political scientists performing expensive research such as surveys.

“If that money was not available, it would set back that type of work,” he said.

Some political science professors like Sides have organized against foes like Coburn. On his popular blog The Monkey Cage, Sides has posted petitions to block Coburn’s amendment and urged readers to contact their congressional representatives.

But, he said in an email, it’s an old and understandable fight. “Old because this has happened on and off for years. Understandable because the desire of many in the GOP to cut federal spending leads them to look for targets,” he said, adding that Coburn, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have “for whatever reason” looked down on political science.

He said it was too early to tell how drastically the defunding would affect research like his because the national interest clause could be interpreted rigidly or loosely.

Professors in the department are also working with grants funded by outside organizations, including the MacArthur Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, which would prevent major damage to GW’s political science research operation.

And Maltzman said as political scientists, they are able to maintain perspective of how Congress operates.

“I think sometimes Congress makes good decisions, and I think sometimes Congress makes poor decisions. And this is one of their poor decisions,” he said. “But truthfully, I’ve never defined my worth by what the United States Congress thinks about my work.”

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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