Daniel W. Drezner

Tom Coburn picks on political science

Tom Coburn picks on political science

The American Political Science Association has informed me that Senator Tom Coburn has introduced a floor amendment to strip away all National Science Foundation funding for political science

Now, as a political scientist, I have some skin in this game.  I’ve never received a dollar of NSF funding, but much of my own work has built off of studies that were funded by the National Science Foundation.  So my natural instinct is to oppose this.  You want to chalk up my opposition to simple material interests, be my guest. 

Looking at Coburn’s explanation for his amendment, however, I’m even more perturbed.  This is the first part of his explanation: 

When Americans think of the National Science Foundation, they think of cross-cutting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Most would be surprised to hear that the agency spent $91.3 million over the last 10 years on political "science" and $325 million last year alone on social studies and economics….

NSF spent $91.3 million over the last 10 years on political "science." This amount could have been directed towards the study of biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. These are real fields of science in which new discoveries can yield real improvements in the lives of everyone.  

Actually, what surprised me is how little the NSF is spending on political science.  Tom Coburn is ticked off because the federal government is shelling out a whopping $9.13 million per year on political science?  We’re running a $1 trillion deficit and Coburn thinks that poli sci’s $9.13 million is what’s crippling the hard sciences?   That dog won’t hunt. 

Moving on….

The National Science Foundation has misspent tens of millions of dollars examining political science issues which in reality have little, if anything, to do with science [such as]….

The Human Rights Data Project: which concluded that the United States has been "increasingly willing to torture enemy combatants and imprison suspected terrorists," leading to a worldwide increase in "human rights violations" as others followed-suit;

Hmmm…. seems to me that finding a correlation of that significance is:

  1. Most definitely science;
  2. Pretty friggin’ important.

Going through the rest of Coburn’s list of "abominations," I can see one or two grants that might raise my hackles — but that’s going to be true of any grant-giving exercise.  See Henry Farrell and Andrew Gelman on this point as well.  As Gelman observes, "really, the list of ‘wasteful projects’ seems pretty lame to me. Golden Fleece material, it ain’t."

Here’s the key paragraph in Coburn’s explanation: 

If taxpayers are going to get their money’s worth from the significant funding increases being entrusted to the National Science Foundation, the agency should be held accountable for how those funds are being spent. The political science program which does not withstand scrutiny should be eliminated immediately. Theories on political behavior are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties, and the voters, rather than being funded out of taxpayers’ wallets, especially when our nation has much more urgent needs and priorities (emphasis added).

OK, dear readers, I want you to close your eyes and imagine a world in which your entire knowledge of political behavior emanated only from CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, and political parties.

Take your time.  I’ll wait. 

If that world didn’t scare you, well, then, you have nothing to worry about.  The rest of you can marvel at Coburn’s failure of logic. 

Basic research in the hard sciences or the social sciences is a public good — these things tend to get underprovided in a perfectly free market.  It’s not clear to me at all why Coburn thinks that the $9 million spent on poli sci is a waste but the gazillions from the public trough spent on the hard sciences are not a waste when private corporations, industrial associations, scientific publications, universities, and private citizens couldn’t fund this stuff. 

Now, I must grudgingly concede one point in Coburn’s favor:  APSA’s response to this is that it, "encourages political scientists to contact their Senator’s office TODAY to ask them to vote against Coburn’s amendment."  This suggests to me despite our massive federal subsidy, APSA has yet to understand how to influence political behavior. 

Having a couple of hundred political scientists call their Senators ain’t going to matter.  Using our vast control of the liberal mainstream media the interwebs to generate media interest in Coburn acting like an ignorant jackass seems much more useful. 


[Um… is this news?  If Coburn regularly acts like an ignorant jackass, then would this be deemed newsworthy?–ed.  Uh-oh.]