On spending: It’s Coburn vs. Krugman

Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) latest fight to eliminate pork-barrel spending has turned into a feud with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and PBS’s “NewsHour.”

Coburn filed an amendment to the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill that would block any money for the National Science Foundation (NSF) from going to political science projects.

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He noted that the NSF once gave political science grants to Krugman, the Nobel laureate and staunch critic of Republican economic policy.

But Krugman disputed the senator’s claims.

“Um, I’m not a political scientist,” Krugman wrote on his blog. “Also, I can’t quite remember when I last received NSF support, but it has to be at least 20 years ago — and it was, of course, for work on international trade, work that, you know, won me a Clark Medal and that other prize.”

“That other prize” is his 2008 Nobel Prize for economics, awarded for his analysis of trade and concentration of wealth.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the sponsor of the spending bill that sets NSF funding, opposed Coburn’s amendment. She noted that the political science funding has been supported by the Defense Department and could help lawmakers understand the world better.

Mikulski noted that this year’s co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for economics, Elinor Ostrom, received several NSF political science grants to fund her research.

But Coburn said that continuing to spend taxpayer money on programs that don’t deserve it will amount to the “waterboarding” of American children.

“We’re going to waterboard them,” Coburn said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “We’re going to flood them with debt.”

Coburn argued that the foundation’s political science program takes resources away from hard sciences.

“What happens when we spend money on obvious answers is that money doesn’t go to research that cures disease,” he said.

His amendment aims to steer federal research money to “the important scientific endeavors that can expand our knowledge of true science and yield breakthroughs and discoveries that can improve the human condition,” Coburn’s office said.

The NSF has given out $91.3 million over the past decade for political science projects. Some of the NSF-funded research topics Coburn criticized include YouTube’s impact on the 2008 election, “Television News and the Visual Framing of War” and political discussion in the workplace.

“Who cares?” Coburn said Tuesday. “Nobody should care about that. What we should care about is our future.”

Coburn has been a longtime crusader against government waste. Soon after joining the Senate in 2005, he railed against the $200 million “Bridge to Nowhere” connecting sparsely populated areas in Alaska. He worked with President Barack Obama when he was in the Senate to create a government website that listed every group that receives federal funds.

During this year’s debate over appropriations bills, Coburn and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have filed amendment after amendment aimed at stripping out earmarks, though nearly all the amendments have been defeated. Coburn, on multiple occasions, has blocked legislation on the Senate floor if he thinks it contains too much pork-barrel spending.

Krugman has received four NSF grants totaling $347,000. He used the money to study international trade; the economics of cities, regions and nations; prospects for exchange-rate stabilization; and the macroeconomics of small open economies.

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Krugman took specific issue with Coburn’s attack on the $5.4 million American National Election Studies grant for the University of Michigan, the NSF’s biggest political science grant in the past decade. Coburn suggested that the studies aren’t worthy of the federal funds since Americans “can turn to CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the print media and a seemingly endless number of political commentators on the Internet.”

But Krugman denied that the studies amounted to a “boondoggle” since they analyze election data not found on cable news.

“Social science research is important, and doesn’t need to face these kinds of know-nothing attacks,” Krugman said.

Coburn’s office dismissed Krugman’s complaints, saying that the amendment is aimed at making sure taxpayer money is used effectively.

“Krugman’s inability to have a rational and respectful debate about priorities speaks volumes about why we are on an unsustainable fiscal course,” said John Hart, Coburn’s spokesman.

Other NSF beneficiaries disputed Coburn’s attacks.

A spokesman for “NewsHour” noted that NSF grants helped fund science coverage, not coverage of the 2008 political conventions, which Coburn’s office had suggested.

Coburn noted a “NewsHour” press release about its GOP convention coverage that listed NSF as a major funder of the program.

“Guess what, [the conventions] were covered by three other networks,” Coburn said. “We didn’t pay them any.”

Robert Flynn, the “NewsHour” spokesman, said that the NSF funding “has been at a level of approximately $800,000 annually and has never funded the coverage of anything other than science.”

The annual $9 million in NSF political science funding hardly compares to the hundreds of millions more spent on other government programs, said Daniel W. Drezner, an international politics professor at Tufts University.

“We’re running a $1 trillion deficit and Coburn thinks that poli sci’s $9.13 million is what’s crippling the hard sciences?” Drezner wrote on his blog.

He added that basic research for social science or hard science is a public good. “[T]hese things tend to get underprovided in a perfectly free market,” he wrote.

Political scientists are mobilizing against Coburn’s measure. The American Political Scientist Association has asked members to call senators to tell them to oppose the amendment.

Coburn’s amendment may come up for a vote this week when the Senate considers its $64.9 billion Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill.