Funding political science

Should the National Science Foundation stop funding research in political science? Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) thinks so, and the American Political Science Association is predictably upset. I can’t say that I think Coburn is right, but I’m finding it hard to get too exercised about it. I say this in part because I think a ...

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Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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578542_091022_penniesb2.jpg

Should the National Science Foundation stop funding research in political science? Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) thinks so, and the American Political Science Association is predictably upset. I can't say that I think Coburn is right, but I'm finding it hard to get too exercised about it. I say this in part because I think a lot of NSF-funded research has contributed to the "cult of irrelevance" that infects a lot of political science, and because the definition of "science" that has guided the grant-making process is excessively narrow. But I also worry that trying to use federal dollars to encourage more policy-relevant research would end up politicizing academic life in some unfortunate ways.

With respect to the first issue, NSF support has undoubtedly facilitated a lot of useful data collection, especially in the field of American politics, and that the availability of this data has contributed to our knowledge of voting behavior, electoral processes, and other aspects of democratic politics. (See Paul Krugman's blog post for more on this). What's less clear is whether that additional "scientific" knowledge is actually helping real democracies perform better, or helping policymakers devise solutions to real policy problems. And in the field of international relations, I suspect that most of the NSF-funded research has been by-academics-and-for-academics, and hasn't had a discernible impact on important real-world problems.

Should the National Science Foundation stop funding research in political science? Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) thinks so, and the American Political Science Association is predictably upset. I can’t say that I think Coburn is right, but I’m finding it hard to get too exercised about it. I say this in part because I think a lot of NSF-funded research has contributed to the “cult of irrelevance” that infects a lot of political science, and because the definition of “science” that has guided the grant-making process is excessively narrow. But I also worry that trying to use federal dollars to encourage more policy-relevant research would end up politicizing academic life in some unfortunate ways.

With respect to the first issue, NSF support has undoubtedly facilitated a lot of useful data collection, especially in the field of American politics, and that the availability of this data has contributed to our knowledge of voting behavior, electoral processes, and other aspects of democratic politics. (See Paul Krugman’s blog post for more on this). What’s less clear is whether that additional “scientific” knowledge is actually helping real democracies perform better, or helping policymakers devise solutions to real policy problems. And in the field of international relations, I suspect that most of the NSF-funded research has been by-academics-and-for-academics, and hasn’t had a discernible impact on important real-world problems.

But I haven’t done a comprehensive survey of NSF funding in this field, and it’s entirely possible that I missed something important. (The work of Elinor Ostrom, who just received the Nobel Prize, might be a case in point). Here’s a suggestion: why doesn’t the NSF put a link up on its website, listing all the grants that it has made to political science since 1995 and then listing all the research products that these projects produced, along with hyperlinks to the books or articles? That way, we could easily examine the results and debate if they were useful or not. Or if NSF doesn’t want to do that, the APSA could provide this information itself. If the field has a lot of accomplishments to be proud of, surely it won’t take long to compile a compelling list. And by the way, it would be interesting to compare the results of NSF-funded projects with research that was either unfunded (i.e., done without outside grants), or funded from other sources. 

But please don’t just give me a citation count, because all shows is that some academic has managed to get cited by his or her fellow scholars. In other words, incest. Demonstrating real-world value will require some serious process-tracing outside the ivory tower, to show how new knowledge and ideas are actually shaping policy in positive ways.

My other concern has to do with the relationship between government funding and policy-relevance. Much as I would like more academic research to address real-world problems, I worry that it would inevitably become more politicized once the government gets involved. It is hard to imagine how a serious study of counterinsurgency, the global financial crisis, human rights, or counterterrorism policy would not have important implications for current policy debates, and some of that research would be explicitly critical of key government policies. Senator Coburn is eager to cut off political science because he thinks it is wasteful, but other politicians are bound to try to fund projects that conform to their own political prejudices. Or they will go after government-funded research that they think is “unpatriotic,” just as politicians once attacked a major RAND study on the dynamics of surrender by suggesting it was encouraging “defeatism.” Academics are human, and some of them are bound to start tailoring their topics and their conclusions to fit the perceived preferences of funders. That’s ok in the think tank world, but universities really ought to aim for a higher standard. The other danger is that academics will be encouraged to make their research as bland as possible, so that it doesn’t offend anyone. We hardly need more of that.

As I’ve written elsewhere, political science ought to place more value on its ability to contribute to solving real-world policy problems, but that will require a shift in the norms and standards that the field sets for itself.   Ironically, that rethinking might happen faster if the NSF gravy train were smaller, or if academics started to worry that ideas like Coburn’s might catch on.

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Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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