Coburn, Congress & Austerity: Defunding Area Studies Research

US federal defunding of academic research programs is a topic of keen interest to Central Eurasian studies scholars.  Laura Adams at Harvard recently published an insightful piece entitled, “The Crisis of US Funding for Area Studies,” in ASEEES’ (The Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies) NewsNets.  Focusing on Title VI and Title VIII funding, she “lays out what the big picture is for U.S. government funding of area studies, and what we might be able to do to mitigate the negative effects of present and future budget cuts.”

Combined fiduciary pressures are particularly troubling; together with Title VI and Title VIII reductions, our humanities and political science colleagues face targeted defunding.  NEH Chairman Jim Leach outlined the budgetary effects of sequestration in a February 28th press release:

Preliminary estimates by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) indicate that sequestration will require a 5 percent reduction in funding for NEH during this fiscal year, which commenced last October 1 and ends this September 30th… The agency will be obligated to make fewer new awards at lower award amounts. We may also have to delay the timing of future grant commitments until overall federal budgeting decisions are clarified…

The shocking passage by voice vote of the Coburn Amendment on March 23rd, defunding political science research in the NSF for all but scholarship that, “promotes national security or the economic interests of the United States,” raises questions across the social sciences and humanities about what is next on the chopping block.

Eric McGlinchey, a political scientist at George Mason, wrote about the difficulties of examining authoritarianism in Central Asia because of funding challenges in the United States, in his book Chaos, Violence, Dynasty:

One reason for our collective deficit in conceptualizing and explaining authoritarian variation… is domestic U.S. politics. Democracy assistance, civil society promotion, freedom of the press, youth and women empowerment—these policies ‘sell on the Hill.’  The problem, though, is these policies have no buyers among Central Asia’s autocratic leaders. One would think academics would rush to point this out to lawmakers. Academics too are shaped by political pressures. U.S. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, for example, forwarded Amendment 2631 to ‘prohibit the National Science Foundation from wasting federal research funding on political science projects.’  Coburn would prefer the NSF concentrate resources on ‘real fields’  that ‘can yield real improvements in the lives of everyone’.

For much more on Coburn and its ramifications, read the extensive coverage by political scientists at The Monkey Cage blog, with links to the many stories written on this topic.

The CESS Blog welcomes any more detailed guest posts on this issue as policies and implications become clearer.