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Republicans don’t like the National Science Foundation, and there’s a perfectly good reason for it

NSF-funded programs increasingly benefit organizations in Democratic congressional districts.

Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) sitting behind his nameplate while listening to testimony.
Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has been a vocal critic of NSF funding.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Why are congressional Republicans so much less supportive of federal programs that fund scientific research than their Democratic colleagues are? Explanations range from the desire to cut federal deficits to the view that researchers are just another interest group seeking funding for their pet programs, or even anti-elite attitudes among Republican legislators and constituencies.

My research on the National Science Foundation reveals a different motivation. Over the past 25 years, shifts in the states and districts represented by each political party have dramatically reduced the proportion of grants awarded to Republican constituencies. Leaving aside Republican rhetoric, their complaints about the NSF and other federal science agencies reflect a simple truth: These programs disproportionately benefit people and organizations represented by Democrats.

The NSF is arguably ground zero in congressional battles over science. Over the past decade, Republicans have repeatedly tried to cut the NSF’s budget, impose restrictions on what it can fund, and eliminate large chunks of the organization, from the political science program to the entire Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate. While interparty conflict over the NSF’s budget and mission has been much less intense since the agency was reauthorized in the waning days of the Obama administration, the message from the debate over the FY 2018 NSF budget is one of Republican acquiescence rather than support.

There is little doubt that Republican misgivings about the NSF and other federal science programs are in part driven by ideological beliefs about the appropriate size and scope of government. Even so, framing these debates over scientific funding as an ideological or partisan battle overlooks a key factor that might drive member complaints: the distribution of grants across states and districts.

A representative’s willingness to support a federal program is shaped by whether the program provides identifiable benefits to their constituents — or, in a polarized, party-centered Congress, to constituents represented by co-partisans. If so, then federal science programs will become the focus of partisan conflict insofar as they benefit one party’s states or districts more than those held by the other party.

To test this hypothesis, I used annual NSF grants data from 1992 to 2018 to calculate the ratio of NSF grants received by different constituencies (states or congressional districts) compared to their population. Ratios over 1 indicate that a state or district received a disproportionately large share of NSF grants, while ratios less than 1 indicate that a state or district’s share was disproportionately low.

For example, one of the most vocal critics of the NSF, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, represents a state whose grants ratio is around .5, meaning that each year Oklahoma receives about half the grants it would receive if the NSF gave out grants proportional to state population. In contrast, former Congress member and now-Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, one of the few House Republicans who voted against a 2012 proposal to curb the NSF political science program, represented a congressional district whose grants ratio is typically well above 3.

Analysis of the funding data reveals dramatic change in the proportion of grants received by Republican and Democratic constituencies. The figure shows the median grants ratios for the Senate Democratic and Republican caucuses from 1992 to 2018.

State-level NSF grants by Party.

The data shows that in the early 1990s, the median Republican senator represented a state that received a disproportionately high (grants ratio > 1) share of NSF grants. However, while the relative number of grants made by the NSF to different states has not changed since the 1990s, the pattern of Democrats and Republicans elected from different states has, as Democrats gained seats on the coasts and New England, and Republicans increased their share in the South, Southwest, and Mountain West.

These changes led to a dramatic shift in partisan grant shares, such that in recent years, the median Republican senator comes from a state whose grants ratio is only two-thirds that of their median Democratic colleague. Data on grants made by the NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate and the political science program shows even stronger partisan asymmetries, a finding that may explain why these units are often the target of Republican attacks. Similar patterns are evident in district-level NSF data, as well as in allocations made by other federal science agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

To be clear, there is no evidence that NSF reviewers, panelists, or program officers consider partisanship when reviewing proposals, or that partisan bias exists at any other federal agency that funds science. The shares of NSF and NIH funding given to different states and districts have stayed relatively constant over time. Even so, because of an accident of political geography, the current recipients of these grants are much more likely to live in areas represented by Democrats. Insofar as “all politics is local” for Republican legislators, criticism of federal science funding is a political no-brainer.

William Bianco is a professor of political science at Indiana University and a visiting professor of international studies at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.