Mikulski Cites Nobel While Defending NSF From Coburn Attack

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Senator Tom Coburn (R–OK) has long been a critic of the National Science Foundation's funding of the political and social sciences, believing that the research it supports is more political than scientific. But the conservative Republican couldn't have picked a worse time to make his argument.

On Tuesday, Coburn proposed eliminating from NSF's 2010 budget the $9 million a year that NSF spends on political science within its $240-million-a-year directorate for social, behavioral, and economic sciences. Coburn singled out a study of campaign rhetoric to accuse NSF of paying for the obvious. "We know why politicians make vague statements," he thundered. "Because they don’t want to get pinned down. But most important, they want to get reelected or elected." He was equally dismissive of research that he described as asking "why people are for or against military conflicts." As he put it, "for us to send money to study something that stupid … is beyond me."

But Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD), chair of the spending panel that sets NSF's budget, was well-prepared to defend the $6.5 billion agency. "I wish to bring to [Coburn's] attention the fact that Dr. Elinor Ostrom, who just won the Nobel Prize for economics, is a political scientist. She has received most of her funding from NSF—28 grants since 1974." Mikulski also defended a joint program with the Department of Defense in which NSF just awarded $8 million in grants to study the social science dimensions of national security, conflicts, and cooperation. "If one of those studies helps one policymaker make one decision to save one Marine, [then] I think it is worth the 8 million bucks."

Coburn admits that his cause is doomed—"I do not have any illusions about what is going to happen"—and his amendment is not expected to be taken up next week when the Senate resumes debate on the spending bill. But Mikulski wasn't in a forgiving mood. "I don't like targeting an individual science area … or trivializing academic research," she said. "The National Science Foundation and our other scientific institutions must go where no thought has gone before. That is the point of discovery."

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