Tag: NSF

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

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. Continue reading


The First Casualty of the National Science Foundation Funding Cut for Political Science


If you belong to APSA, you probably got the email announcing the last-minute closure of the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute because of the Coburn (left) amendment. Undergraduate programming like this is obviously pretty vulnerable. It doesn’t have the cachet of high-profile, ‘big think’ research. But it does obviously endanger the discipline in the long-term by cutting into our future replacements (almost certainly one purpose of the amendment). It would be no surprise if some of this summer’s bright students got turned off our discipline because of these shenanigans, or missed a seminar or session this summer that might have helped them nail-down a good research question and so on. In brief, this cut is the real deal after years of GOP threats to our discipline, and that sucks.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac on the NSF and Political Science

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.

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

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.

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Six Degrees of Securitization (F*@k you, Senator Coburn!)


Separated at birth? Seriously, Ole Weaver is a sexy motherf*@cker.


Ole Weaver is looking good.

Yesterday the Senate passed the Coburn amendment cutting off funds for political science research through the National Science Foundation. It was by a voice vote, which is another way of saying that it was so unanimous that no one bothered to even count hands. So that doesn’t bode well. I heard on NPR that the money will instead go to cancer research, which is a pretty clever move. Needless to say, APSA didn’t mention that in the press release. I must say that I would rather that the government spend money to help find a cure for the disease killing Aunt Millie than help Bueno de Mesquita advance selectorate theory.

But………  Coburn, who has probably trying to be too clever, left a weakness in the system as there is an exception for research that promotes “national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Dumbass, this is our bread and butter. We can “securitize” anything. In fact we learned how from you bozos. The bad news for large-N researchers compiling big datasets is that they are going to have to read a lot of Ole Weaver, which is going to be very hard for them. But if th at is the difference between a million dollars in grant money or rerunning the Correlates of War, I think I know what they will choose.

Let’s show you how easy this is by playing six degrees of securitization. You can take any political science problem and justify it on the basis of national security in six steps or fewer.

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Why political science matters

 Some critics of academic social science, and political science in particular, have recently asserted that it’s difficult to see the benefit of what we do. To be fair, our output is less immediately tangible than the Hubble Space Telescope, treatments for HIV/AIDS, or the decoding of the human genome, to take only three visible and valuable recipients of federal funding for science in my lifetime.

To date, however, the defenders of political science have been a little less full-throated in their case for our discipline than one might have expected. It is all well and good that this recipient of some specific federal grant has advanced our understanding of the world, but that hardly proves (even at the rhetorical level) the notion that academic political science in general is good for America. Such a strategy is little different than our critics’ move of cherry-picking titles and descriptions of projects they find trivial to prove the negative.

Perhaps a comparison is in order.

Today’s Financial Times online Alphaville section contains a discussion of Chinese economics statistics–and particularly how unreliable and subject to political influence they are. I bring this up because the coalition for crippling the federal government’s ability to collect and disseminate accurate information about the nation’s population, society, and economy is quite similar to that which supports overriding the professional, scientific judgment of the NSF and de-funding political science.

Traditionally, free societies have believed in the freedom of information. That freedom is meaningless unless information is accurate, and quality information demands and deserves government spending. And one important check on the quality of information is the existence of adequately resourced and well trained social scientists who do not work for the government.

Why? Because social science matters. Social science literally defines the terms of the debates we have about the sources of economic growth, about whether elections are fair, about whether the United States is a hegemon or a declining power, about whether the West is a more open society than the Rest, about gender equity and income mobility and school quality and divorce rates and whether prettier candidates win more votes.

Social science is far from perfect. (See Skip Lupia’s 2000 PS article on this and related points.) We can’t cure dysfunctional societies. Our predictions are less exact than physicists’ and our prescriptions are usually less immediately practicable than clinical research. But as a whole society is much better off for having richer and more robust debates about the causes and effects of social phenomena than we would be without such debates. Indeed, the alternative to good social science is not no social science but bad social science.

What is galling about the attack on the NSF is the assertion–the certainty–that none of this is important. Or at least not important enough to justify tax dollars being spent on it.

This is what we need to discuss. This is what we need to impress on the Hill, on journalists, and on the attentive public at large. And it needs to be yoked to a broader movement to bring the open-access revolution to political science. If we receive public funds, our findings should be public.

But all of these quibbles are secondary to the larger point. We don’t care about the NSF’s funding of political science for any one given project, or even all projects considered individually. We have to consider them as a whole, and defend them as a whole. In the end, we should be arguing on behalf of the consumers of knowledge as much as the producers.


NSF Blogging

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.)


Mad Scientists? Try Bemused.

Senator Tom Coburn knows how to rankle political scientists. Float a bill claiming all their work is bunk and should receive no government funding. For those who want to read it, here’s Coburn’s explanation. This is stirring up some ire and concern among political scientists in the blogosphere. Some of my colleagues even feel “picked on.”

Well look.

1) To be fair, he’s not really saying our work is bunk. Just that it’s not “science.” He doesn’t give a definition of what he thinks science is, but apparently it’s something like pornography: he knows it when he sees it:

“…biology, chemistry, geology, and physics… these are real fields of science in which new discoveries can yield real improvements in the lives of everyone.”

2) So, let’s take Coburn on his own terms instead of pointing out that he is “acting like an ignorant jackass”. If to be “science” your discoveries have to benefit people’s lives, figuring our how to make government work better would seem to count to me. People’s ability to profit from such so-called “basic research”* as how “robotics can help individuals with severe disabilities” is wholly contingent on a government providing education, roads, infrastructure, and (how ironically) funding the robotics research. You’re not going to get a lot of research into “bones that blend with tendons” in a failed state situation like Somalia; people’s lives are not improving very quickly in places like North Korea. Everything begins with good governance and security. But we wouldn’t want any studies of how to achieve that.

3) Oh, that’s right. Actually we would. Which is why DOD is reaching out to social scientists in order to do its job of protecting the nation more smartly. Also why, according to the NSF website:

“Congress established the NSF in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…”

Yep. Turns out we don’t actually have to take Coburn’s argument on its own terms, because Coburn’s entire argument is based on a faulty understanding of the purpose of the NSF, which is not simply to promote applied research as he claims but to ensure in part that the US government has the social scientific data needed to understand precisely the issues he claims are irrelevant to science. Like international conflict. Like democracy, campaigns and elections. Like political change, and regime transitions. Like international political economy. Like political psychology and political tolerance. True, you don’t need to understand these things in order to succeed at some forms of applied science – just ask the Nazi doctors. You do need them for science as Coburn defines it – where new discoveries benefit the lives of all.

So you can see why this whole thing strikes me as very, very funny – less like being picked on by a bully and more like watching a very cute two-year-old throw a tantrum before bed. You more want to laugh than get riled, much less worried about your ability to make a living.

I was especially tickled by the fact that the conference on YouTube and the 2008 Election Cycle I blogged about last year was among Coburn’s examples of “government waste.” (As a faculty member in the department that hosted the conference, I would like to express my humblest apology on behalf of our discipline.)

The great irony of this example is that one of the key features of the conference was practical, applied research – the kind he claims political scientists never do (maybe because he has his terminology backward).* For example, Chirag Shah’s TubeKit is a tool engineered to make it easy for political scientists to systematically analyze the impact of user-created video content on political processes; keynote speaker Richard Rogers’ Issuecrawler does the same for web-sphere analysis. You can argue with whether those things – or game theory models that let us predict and respond to political behavior – are a public good (then again you can argue about whether biofuels are a public good too). But you can’t claim political scientists don’t use NSF money to build tools or that these tools don’t have practical applications. Or, if you do, then your argument is based on assertion and opinion, not fact; it’s simply not grounded in the available empirical evidence. In other words, it’s not scientific.

I’d rather make policy based on facts and evidence. So would many of our leaders. And that’s the simplest reason why funding scientific research on political phenomena is and should remain among our government’s many priorities.

*Basic research is precisely what Coburn seems to oppose – the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The term for what he is describing – science that has practical or commercial applications – is “applied research.” The fact that he doesn’t know the difference should be a pretty strong signal about his credibility.


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