Friday, October 30, 2009

A Discipline in Denial

Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma swooped in on the National Science Foundation budget, offering an amendment that would ban the organization from "wasting any federal research funding on political-science projects." The assumption that the money was better spent on "real science," seemed to cause the entire quarrelsome field of political scientists to rise as one in righteous opposition.

Senator Coburn strikes again.

Querulous academics often are their own worst enemies in these funding battles. They quickly wax hysterical, unaware that platitudes about supporting "free inquiry" do not cut much with the general public. Should NSF be spending $188,206 to support a study of "candidate ambiguity and voter choice," designed to ascertain how politicians benefit from being vague?

188 thousand out of a budget totaling 2.5 trillion dollars; wow, that will make an impact. Seems more pf an anti-intellectual charade than budgetary discipline. Coburn's at it again.

Still, the political scientists have a point. The program has been going since the early 1960s, and the dollar amounts have always been relatively small—the money for political science projects have amounted to $112 million over a 10-year period, compared to NSF's budget request for 2010 of more than $7 billion.

188 thousand out of 7 billion equals 0.00269%

There are other reasons to think that this battle may be ill-chosen. The very program under fire supported the work of Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize in economics this year for her work advancing the role of free institutions, rather than governments, in managing natural resources—an analysis Mr. Coburn might find valuable.

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