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Unhappy. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is “troubled” that Congress omitted his restrictions on NSF in the 2014 spending bill.

Unhappy. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is “troubled” that Congress omitted his restrictions on NSF in the 2014 spending bill.

U.S. Congress/Senator Tom Coburn

U.S. Political Scientists Relieved That Coburn Language Is Gone

The 2014 spending bill that the U.S. Congress passed last week renders moot part of Justin Esarey’s recent grant application to the National Science Foundation (NSF). But Esarey, an assistant professor of political science at Rice University in Houston, Texas, couldn’t be happier.

Esarey was one of hundreds of researchers who tweaked their pending proposals to accommodate a directive from Congress that any awards made by NSF’s division of political science must foster national security or economic development. The language, crafted by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), was adopted last March as an amendment to a bill setting out NSF’s 2013 budget. (Like most policy “riders” to appropriations bills, it applied only to that fiscal year.)

In response, NSF canceled a grants competition planned for last summer, delayed making any new awards, and in November notified researchers that anyone seeking funding in the next competition should explain “[t]he relationship of the proposed research to these [two] goals.” The letter said NSF would also continue to apply its two traditional criteria—intellectual merit and broader impacts.

Esarey heeded NSF’s advice in his proposal, which describes a weekly online “international methods colloquium” on applying quantitative analysis to political science. Instead of simply talking about the value of the webinar series to other researchers, Esarey added two paragraphs that explained how the information, archived and publicly available, might also attract people into the burgeoning field of “big data,” which labor analysts say is looking for workers. “It really wasn’t much of a stretch to make the case that it could be a public good,” Esarey says.

That claim may still be true. But it’s probably not going to affect how Esarey’s proposal will be judged at NSF. The deadline for grant applications was 15 January, one day before Congress completed action on a 2014 spending bill covering the entire federal government. That bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law on 17 January, didn’t include the Coburn amendment. “We’re all delighted that this is no longer a special burden for political scientists,” Esarey says.

NSF plans to handle the new round of applications as if the Coburn amendment never existed. “Panelists will be asked to review the proposals against NSF’s two merit review criteria, intellectual merit and broader impacts,” explains Debbie Wing of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. Asked whether the agency will take into account the additional material from researchers that address Coburn’s two criteria, Wing says that “NSF program officers will consider information provided by project investigators about all potential broader impacts of their research, including potential impacts on national security and the economic interests of the United States.”

That approach makes sense to Esarey. “[The Coburn amendment] was a legal requirement as of 15 January, so all of us are on equal grounds,” he says. Referring to the portion of his application that addresses how his grant would bolster the economy by strengthening the U.S. technical workforce, he adds, “I have a hard time believing that it will count against us. My guess is that it will neither help nor hurt.”

What hurts Esarey and other political scientists is how legislators decided to add their voice to what they believe should be a discussion among scientific peers. “It’s valid for Congress to say it wants to favor one area of research,” Esarey says. “But this is not the right way to do that.”

Aaron Fobes, a spokesman for Coburn, says his boss “is troubled that Congress again allowed scarce scientific research funding to go to lower-priority political science studies.” But Fobes declined to say whether Coburn, who announced last week that he is giving up his Senate seat in December, will try to reintroduce his restrictions when Congress takes up a 2015 spending bill later this year. A colleague, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), proposed similar language several years ago while a member of the House of Representatives.

Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chairs the House spending panel that oversees NSF’s budget, told ScienceInsider last week that “I’m comfortable with where we are now. But we’re going to watch it.” Wolf, who is also retiring from Congress at the end of the year, added that he’s “a big supporter of NSF and that I don’t want to do anything to harm NSF.”  

Rick Wilson, a colleague of Esarey’s at Rice, applauds NSF for its response to the Coburn amendment. “I think NSF was smart in backing off, and the eventual outcome was good,” says Wilson, who did not submit a proposal in the latest round. “Even if you have a sharp stick, you shouldn’t poke the hornet’s nest. But it’s a shame that [political science] had to be sacrificed for a year.”