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Expressing Concern on Restrictions Placed on Political Science Research at the National Science Foundation

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. LIPINSKI. Mr. Speaker, I rise to share my concern about language adopted in a Senate amendment to H.R. 933 regarding political science research funded by the National Science Foundation.

The U.S. scientific enterprise is the envy of the world, and rightly so. The U.S. has been a world leader in science, technology, and innovation for decades and a large reason for that leadership has been the freedom and independence afforded our scientists to follow a line of inquiry wherever it may lead them. In fact, some of the most beneficial discoveries have been made researching topics that some might consider frivolous.

Consider that a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1955 to study the ``Sex Life of the Screwworm'' was criticized by members of Congress at the time. The research resulting from that grant allowed scientists to understand how to stop screwworms from breeding and thus from infecting cattle, which was a serious problem. It is estimated that this research saved the U.S. cattle industry $20 billion, an enviable return on investment to say the least. Historically, when individual grants have been highlighted and held up for ridicule by politicians in this way, many of the grants turned out to have a good deal of value when viewed in retrospect.

Unfortunately, history has repeated itself in the past few years. Most recently, a Senate amendment attached to H.R. 933, the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013, would prevent the National Science Foundation (NSF) from conducting political science research unless the NSF director certified that the research promoted the national security or economic interests of the country. When introducing the language, the amendment's sponsor highlighted several individual grants as unnecessary.

I, myself, have a Ph.D. in political science, and was a professor of political science for several years before running for Congress. Opposition to NSF funding of political science research has typically been based on the assumption that the research findings have little or no beneficial impact for our nation. But this assumption is simply not true.

Political science research helps us understand many important topics that affect the everyday lives of millions of Americans at home and overseas, including why countries go to war and what can be done to promote civic engagement and voting among the general public. Recent political science research funded by NSF studied FDA approvals of products and produced recommendations for avoiding faulty approvals in the future. FDA officials were briefed on the results and the recommendations had implications ranging from the White House Office of Science and Technology policy to financial regulations made by the Federal Reserve System. Political science research also impacts research done in all other areas of social science.

NSF funding of political science research has averaged roughly $11 million a year over the last 10 years. This represents less than 0.2% of the NSF's research funding, but it is the predominant source of research funding for political scientists in the United States.

For just a small investment this funding can help bring about research discoveries that change how we view our world. In 2009, Professor Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for her research about how people can successfully manage common property such as forests, fisheries, and oil fields. Federal funding for research like this can have substantially positive impacts on our daily lives.

Furthermore, the danger with an amendment like this is that the economic and national security value of research isn't always known at the outset. The director of the Department of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office testified before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee last year that social science research was vital to predicting the actions of terrorist cells. Much of the basic research this work relies on would have limited direct national security implications. Basic research in political science at the NSF on social movement theory and agency theory may have no direct connection at all to our national security interests, and yet unless we understand these basic underpinnings regarding how people behave, we can never effectively study the applications that do have direct security connections, such as predicting the actions of terrorist cells.

This amendment is also misguided in the way it adds red tape and bureaucracy to one of our nation's premier institutions for funding scientific research. Just as much money would be spent by the National Science Foundation, but by placing additional administrative burdens on research approval, fewer grants might be awarded due to the increased cost of review. At best, this amendment would be an unnecessary regulatory burden, at worst, it could negatively impact both our economic and national security interests despite its intentions.

I continue to believe that science works best when scientists, and not politicians, are deciding what scientific questions are worth pursuing. Legislative limitations on scientific inquiry should be made sparingly, if at all. I would urge all members to reject such restrictions on political science funding in the future.


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