Social Sciences Targeted in 'Ideological' War on Research: News

By Marcus, Jon | Times Higher Education, July 4, 2013 | Go to article overview

Social Sciences Targeted in 'Ideological' War on Research: News


Marcus, Jon, Times Higher Education


Calls to restrict fields' funds and scope of study alarm US academics. Jon Marcus writes.

Tom Coburn was perplexed to see the US federal government spending $188,206 (Pounds 120,440) of its increasingly limited research money to pay for a study into why political candidates make vague statements and what the consequences might be.

Coburn is not just another disgruntled observer of the funding process. He's a US senator. And his statement on this matter was not vague at all but crystal clear.

Citing that project and others, Coburn, a Republican, finally succeeded in a years-long effort to end federal support for any political science research unless it is "promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States".

It is the latest of several restrictions being imposed on government financial support for research, the use of certain government data, and even the collection by the government of some information - alarming scholars who say that the attacks are being imposed under the guise of austerity but are actually ideological.

"When the money shrinks, you start looking for things you think are vulnerable," says Howard Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations. Such attacks, he adds, "are accelerating".

Coburn's amendment to an appropriations bill, which was passed by the Senate in March, has been followed by another proposal in the House of Representatives requiring the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency, to certify that the research it supports is "in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense".

The chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Republican congressman Lamar Smith, has demanded to see the internal reviews of five specific social science grants that were, he said, of "questionable" value and "do not seem to meet the high standards of most NSF-funded projects". Such a level of legislative micromanagement breaks with protocol, and the NSF has so far refused the request.

Another bill proposes to limit spending by the National Institutes of Health exclusively to research into issues affecting children. A previous bill, narrowly defeated last year, would have prevented the NIH from continuing to pay for economics research.

Access to data prohibited

Existing regulations already prohibit researchers who study education from getting access to data that could identify individual students, vastly reducing their ability to track the impact of such features as socio- economic status on academic success.

Congress has so far refused to allow the use of identification numbers instead of names to avoid this problem, part of a resistance to collecting personal information from the public.

For the same reason, another bill introduced in April by Republican congressman Jeff Duncan proposes to make completing the US Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey - which tracks demographic trends in years when there is no decennial census - optional rather than mandatory.

"The restrictions do tend to come from those folks on the political spectrum who are less inclined to trust government," says Gerald Sroufe, director of government relations at the American Educational Research Association. "Of course, today that would be a lot of people. But in general it's been the Republicans who have resisted things that have provided information about pupils and families."

All this activity comes after Congress banned, for 17 years, any research into guns or gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control or other federal agencies, a decree that was finally overturned by an executive order from Barack Obama after the mass shooting in December last year that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut.

But while that tragedy forced congressional interference in one field of study to be lifted, the broader trend is heading in the opposite direction. …

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