Daniel W. Drezner

Why political science can drive political scientists to drink

Yesterday an amendment to the continuing resolution funding the U.S. government, sponsored by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, was passed by a voice vote in the Senate. Its purpose?  To prohibit the use of funds to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate ...

Yesterday an amendment to the continuing resolution funding the U.S. government, sponsored by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, was passed by a voice vote in the Senate. Its purpose? 

To prohibit the use of funds to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.

Now, from a pure material interest perspective, this should make me happy. I’ve never received a dime in NSF funding, and I’m sitting on a pretty good grant for the next 5-10 years, so from a strictly relative gains perspective, I acquire more influece in the discipline. Furthermore, the national security exemption means that whatever scraps the NSF throws to political science will go to my preferred subfields like international relations and comparative politics. 

The thing is, though, that I love political science. I want to see more quality research being done, and the NSF cutoff pushes things in the opposite direction. So I’m not happy. 

If I’m displeased, however, then I think it’s safe to say that the American Political Science Association is galactically pissed off at this outcome: 

Adoption of this amendment is a gross intrusion into the widely-respected, independent scholarly agenda setting process at NSF that has supported our world-class national science enterprise for over sixty years.

The amendment creates an exceptionally dangerous slippery slope. While political science research is most immediately affected, at risk is any and all research in any and all disciplines funded by the NSF. The amendment makes all scientific research vulnerable to the whims of political pressure. 

Adoption of this amendment demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the breadth and importance of political science research for the national interest and its integral place on the nation’s interdisciplinary scientific research agenda. 

Singling out any one field of science is short-sighted and misguided, and poses a serious threat to the independence and integrity of the National Science Foundation.

And shackling political science within the national science agenda is a remarkable embarrassment for the world’s exemplary democracy.

I’ve blogged at length in the past on the substantive reasons why a cutoff of NSF funds for political science is really, really, stupid. Another post on that question won’t change things. And I vented my frustration at the willful ignorance of Senator Coburn yesterday, so there’s no reason to go there now. Yesterday, however, there was rollicking debate on Twitter about the need for political scientists to, well, be better at politics. Folks such as Phil Arena, Jay Ulfelder, William Winecoff, and Jacob Levy observed that APSA’s tactical response to Coburn’s folly — encouraging APSA members to email Congress and so forth — was pretty lame. Only if we used the Dark Arts of political science knowledge could we somehow stymie the Senator from Oklahoma. 

Here’s the thing, though — while I’m no expert in American politics, I think I know enough of the Dark Arts to know that we could have the best arguments in the world and still recognize that political science is good and truly f**ked. 

From a straight interest group perspective political scientists don’t matter. At all. The NSF funding for political science is a $13 million appropriation spread out geographically. There is no concentrated interest in a particular congressional district or state to motivate a member of Congress to fight for this issue with as much ardor as Tom Coburn or Jeff Flake. 

Now, one could argue that if you believe in epistemic communities — i.e., the power of collective expertise — to influence uninformed members of Congress, then maybe political scientists could function as Weberian activists and educate members about the inherent value of political science. The thing is, as I’ve argued previously, politicians and pundits do not think of politics as a scientific enterprise. Maybe a few pundits developed a new appreciaion for statistics following the 2012 election, but that’s not quite the same thing. So an epistemic community of political scientists won’t cut it. Hell, all social scientists would be unlikely to persuade the Senate — remember, this is a body that was copacetic with a Senator blocking a Nobel Prize winning economist from sitting on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Maybe we could logroll with all  the natural and physical sciences too, but if the past decade of climate change policy has proven anything, it’s that this won’t work terribly well. 

Another gambit would be to move public opinion on this issue to the point where Congress had no choice but to accede to the masses … except the masses likely support the cuts. A mass public that believes the foreign aid budget is a thousand times larger than it actually is likely believes that cutting NSF funding of political science goes a long way toward tackling the deficit. Furthermore, as Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler’s research shows, it’s next to impossible to correct that misperception. 

There are three other ways for political scientists to alter the status quo — but each of them has issues: 

1) A political scientist needs to come up with a killer scientific breakthrough that really advances knowledge in the field in an unambiguous manner. We’re talking something Nobel-worthy. Oh, wait, Elinor Ostrom already did that, and it didn’t matter. Never mind…

2) A political scientist needs to develop a predictive model that’s so powerful that it yields substantial profit — to the point where the political scientists can afford to set up an endowment that substitutes for NSF funding. The thing is, there already are political scientists who have thrived in the private sector — but I’m not seeing enough cabbage being earned to create endowments. 

3) Finally, maybe a trained political scientist could just run for the Senate, get elected, and apply the necessary counterweight to Coburn et al … except that one of Coburn’s co-sponsors is Arizona freshman Senator Jeff Flake, who has — wait for it — an M.A. in political science

Am I missing anything, or is political science good and truly f**ked? 

UPDATE: OK, there’s one other possibility that could theoretically shift the status quo. Suppose a rival great power — say, a country that rhymes with "Dinah" — were to suddenly throw around huge research $$$ to develop a comparative advantage in poli sci. Say that the money was so good that it started to attract the cream of the political science crop. That might spur Congress to freak out about the existence of a political science gap

So, any political scientists sitting on fat research offers from China — now is the time to accept them. 

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