Walter Russell Mead Defends, Badly, the NSF cuts to Political Science

6 August 2013, 0300 EDT

I’ve defended Mead before on this site. I think he is a bright conservative who stands out in a sea of Fox News ideological bleh, like NewsMax or Drudge. He has a far better sense of the importance of religion in many people’s lives than academics do, and he has a good feel for western classical history that adds historical depth to a lot of his blogging. I read him regularly, where I stumbled on this defense of the coming NSF cuts in political science. Money quote:

Political scientists should know better: university faculties ultimately depend on taxpayers and their representatives for many of the resources they need for their work. This fact of life is truer than ever when health care and other costs are forcing discretionary spending down. Funding for political science is just another budget line item that needs to be justified. Writing obscure articles for peer-reviewed journals that nobody, not even other people in your discipline, will read is not the best way to do that.

And here’s another thought: making departments in social sciences and other disciplines more welcoming to political conservatives and—horrors!—seriously religious people may help build that bipartisan support without which federal funds will be increasingly hard to get.

This is pretty lame. An academic like Mead should know better than to complain that no one reads our stuff. Of course no one reads a great deal of basic research. But Mead knows as well as anyone in this line of work that improvements in theoretical foundations eventually bubble up into more digestible ideas for laymen and in easier formats like Foreign Affairs. This is well-known and almost certainly describes Mead’s own academic experience too. Yes, maybe 19 of 20 articles are same lame recycling of warmed over old ideas or whatever. But I dare say that is quite a blithe generalization to make about the very best journals in political science like the APSR which are edited and reviewed by some of the very best scholars in the world.

Next, NSF political science funding is an infinitesimally small portion of the US budget. To suggest it is crowding out other spending, while technically correct, woefully misrepresents its rank next to most discretionary programs, not to mention monsters like healthcare or defense. Also, political science funding was explicitly singled out among all NSF grant lines for termination.That sounds pretty political to me. So yes, political science should carry its part of the sequester, but that’s not what this was.

Instead, it is pretty well established that Senator Coburn dislikes political science, particularly the American politics subfield and its survey work, because he thinks it’s politically liberal, specifically that the survey work returns attitudinal shifts that the GOP dislikes hearing about. Among other things, he has complained that NSF supported Paul Krugman, even though he won a Nobel Prize. To me, that is just about the smoking gun that this is not about budget pressure, but politics. If NSF shouldn’t even support a Nobel Prize winner, then why have it at all?

It is also pretty widely know that conservatives in general dislike contemporary American academia, and that academia, because it generally produces public goods that would be under-provided if only private monies supported it, is highly reliant on public funding. All that is to say that education is not really in the same category with much other public funding under challenge by the sequester. Without state funding, a lot of basic research, like those American politics surveys, would never occur.