It’s Not About #PoliSci, It’s About the #NSF

by PM

26 March 2013, 1442 EDT

One point that I’d like to see made a little bit more clearly is that political scientists should try to reframe this. I doubt that we have much sympathy among members of other disciplines; that quote about “first they came for the X” is troubling precisely because, well, nobody stands up for the Xs as Xs. Besides, academics don’t have much sympathy for anyone outside of their discipline: would political scientists rally behind a struggling Anthropology? And the jerks at Freakonomics encouraged their readers to support icing both poli sci and sociology, so I doubt we can count on much deep help from the economists.


If there’s one thing we can do, it’s to point out that there is a risk that targeting poli sci could lead to an actual domino theory. Not so much in the Coburn-is-coming-for-you-next sense—my guess is that Dr. Coburn (R., Latveria) is not, actually, all that incensed by NSF funding for economists—but in the sense that Congress shouldn’t dictate the inner workings of the NSF on anything. If it’s not Coburn targeting economists, maybe it’s Rand Paul requiring the NSF to only sponsor non-Keynesian economics research. Or Jeff Flake banning research into evolution—or a requirement that all geological research consider the null hypothesis that the earth is 4,000 years old.

Freedom of inquiry is a freedom that’s worth defending. To skeptics of #polisci—and they are legion even within our discipline–we have to make the core value at stake plain. Just as standing up for free speech means occasionally standing up for unsympathetic defendants, so too does standing up for free inquiry mean siding with disciplines that you don’t, necessarily, like. (Note that I’m not saying that poli sci is unsympathetic, but that this is an argument crafted for use with those who think it is.) What’s next: a requirement that the NSF give up (I don’t know) dinosaur research in order to only fund missile-defense requirements? Stopping research into development economics because it’s inconvenient for the State Department?

We’re not the largest discipline, and we’re not the NSF’s top concern. But NSF officials and other disciplines should be concerned about the precedent this sets. So, by all means, let’s remember to talk about the successes of political science. Doing so, however, carries a risk that the next Coburn amendment does what this one did: only attacking our non-policy-relevant contributions. We need to defend basic research, not our home turf.

I am well aware that this argument has been made elsewhere, so I don’t claim it’s original. I just think it bears repeating.