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NSF Blogging

May 11, 2012

The Monkey Cage is engaged in a full-court press in defense of NSF political-science grants. The cause, of course, is Representative Jeff Flake’s (successful) amendment to axe funding for political-science research. Although I never have received, and probably will never receive, an NSF grant, I find Flake’s denigration of social-science research troubling. Much worse are attempts to micro-manage the NSF. 

The whole point of this kind of arrangement is to prevent politicians from making decisions about what kind of basic research best advances knowledge in specialized disciplines (more from Chris Zorn on this point). The problems here are on pretty good display in Flake’s own speech. To wit:

So what kind of research is NSF charging to our credit card? $700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis; $600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.

Both of these seem pretty worthy of study, unless one has some kind of ideological bias against modeling climate change or understanding how well American representative democracy functions.

But Flake’s other objection is less easily dismissed. As he notes:

…. three-quarters of these awards under this program for political science research, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities that have endowments greater than $1 billion.
Think about it. Three out of the four of the grants awarded by the NSF Political Science 

Program go to the wealthiest universities in the country. Would those who would oppose this amendment have believed that Harvard and Yale would have to close their political science departments if Federal grants are not available for this program? Of course not. These universities and the field of political science will be just fine.

Obviously, there are confounding factors: wealthier institutions provide a lot of grant-application support, the academics who work there are (overall) extremely well-known and more influential in their fields, and so forth. And if the money goes to finance research that would not otherwise have been done, who cares if Harvard’s Government Department can survive the lost revenue? Moreover, as John Sides points out a quarter of NSF funding goes to folks not at Princeton, Yale, etc.

Still, it would be interesting for someone with time on his or her hands (i.e., not me) to look at the pedigree of grant recipients to see how predictive having been educated at a handful of schools is for NSF funding. I don’t think that our discipline should be entirely sanguine about the ways that funding streams, such as that provided by the NSF, may benefit the privileged.

Those kinds of factors, of course, aren’t dispositive. The elimination of NSF grants for political scientists is ridiculous on the merits. It is made even more ridiculous by the fact that many cognate fields will still get funding.

So, as the saying goes, contact your congresscritter!

(While it would be, in some respects, interesting to have a natural experiment on the impact to Political Science as a discipline if it lost NSF funding–which overwhelmingly goes to a particular kind of research–no such experiment is worth the loss of the social and intellectual goods provided by that money.)

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.