Jeffrey C. Isaac on the NSF and Political Science

29 March 2013, 1333 EDT

In a piece that’s bound to generate controversy among political scientists, Isaac looks at the “big picture” of the defunding of (many forms of) political science via the Coburn Amendment. What’s likely controversial about the piece?

First, Isaac argues that the defunding of political science is simply a wedge in the broader conservative “war on science.”

It seems very clear that the move to defund political science is linked to a broader conservative political agenda targeting many aspects of science and the humanities, and rooted in a hostility toward intellectuals; that it hypocritically singles out the relatively small amounts of the NSF budget spent on political science; and that it rests on a range of specious assumptions and claims. One is the notion that most important NSF-funded natural science is technologically driven applied science. This is obviously false, and the distinction between theoretical and applied science is well established within the natural sciences—and scientists well understand that the practical advances that science makes possible are only enabled bytheoretical advances. Another is the notion that the only way to be a “real” science is to be a science like physics or chemistry. And the third, and most serious, specious assumption is that the principal scientific and social value of American political science is its ability to promote the “national security” and “economic interests” of the United States.

This is particularly interesting in light of Tom Nichols’ claims about academic liberals and Bush Derangement Syndrome. While I’m on record disagreeing with the overall tenor of Nichols’ post, I do think that there’s a palpable sense that the GOP has turned its back on scholarship in favor of “junk science” of both the natural and social varieties. This might be a matter of “hurt feelings” or of liberal bias. Or it might reflect the current balance of forces within the GOP. But I don’t think that conservatives are hostile toward intellectuals per se. They’re fine with intellectuals who embrace conservative positions.

But this isn’t why I speak of this claim as controversial. Many of the political scientists who have rallied against defunding have tried to adopt a non-partisan stance–which has proven somewhat difficult given that the politicians pushing for defunding have all been Republicans. But there are good reasons for political scientist who want NSF funding restored not to simply align with Democrats. So this is a pretty thorny issue.

Second, Isaac lays out a sustained version of an argument that’s been lurking around for a while. The NSF may not provide much political-science funding, but it has certainly impacted the direction of the field.

In short, the observation that NSF-funded research is important to democracy is true only if one seriously acknowledges—and accords recognition and value to—how it is embedded in the broader streams of research, writing, teaching, and public argumentation that constitute U.S. political science.

My colleagues who are experiencing Schadenfreude at the Coburn amendment see little value in the “high tech” work funded by the NSF, because this work is typically pretty remote from the work that they do, and they experience no direct and palpable advantages from it. But in fact this NSF-funded work is an important part of broader inquiry in political science, for the reasons stated above. NSF funding is also crucial to the functioning of the APSA and for the funding of much graduate education in political science, in academic departments and centers across the many research universities in the United States. These are the most important reasons why I strongly support continued NSF-funded political science research.

At the same time, my colleagues who are simply outraged over the Coburn amendment, and who imagine that every decent political scientist ought to rush to the barricades in “defense of political science,” often fail to appreciate that the political science they are calling on their colleagues to defend often relegates many of these colleagues to second-class status in the discipline. This failure to appreciate how their “science” is experienced by other colleagues, and to recognize (and own) that the discipline has been politically constructed in ways that are not inevitable and that privilege some over others, is unfortunate for the cause of NSF funding and for the discipline more broadly.

I’m curious what our readers make of all this.