$301,000 to Study Gender in Political Ambition?

On May 25th, the House of Representatives passed what is called the Flake Amendment, which prohibits the National Science Foundation from funding projects in political science. Here are Congressman Jeff Flake’s words on the House floor from May 9th:

“Let me simply say I can think of few finer examples to cut than the National Science Foundation’s Political Science Program. According to the NSF Web site, to date, more than $80 million has been awarded to the program’s nearly 200 active projects. Three-quarters of these awards, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion.

“Again, 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.

“However, my greatest concern is not who received these funds, but how they are spent. Every dollar Congress spends is money we don’t have, as I mentioned.

“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.

“Let me say that again: $600,000 here spent trying to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do. I think we can answer that question in about 5 minutes when we vote on this amendment because I can tell you, people out there want us to quit funding projects like this.

“$301,000 to study gender and political ambition among high school and college students; $200,000 to study to determine why political candidates make vague statements. $200,000 to study why political candidates make vague statements. That’s what we’re paying for here.

“These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them. How can we justify this outcome?” (See here)

At least on the surface, Flake’s argument is practical, not ideological, with cost at the root. He also has some knowledge of the field, earning a BA in International Relations and an MA in Political Science at BYU, as well as working in Africa on democracy efforts and heading the Goldwater Institute. Given the fiscal condition of the Federal government, he asks bluntly, do the benefits of these programs justify the costs? As Flake notes, most of the recipients are wealthy universities with $1 billion endowments–call them the “1 percent” of higher education. Why are they receiving tax dollars taken from citizens who can’t afford to send their children to those colleges?

The answer from the political scientists is simple: because the funded research does important and valuable things. (See the discussions at themonkeycage.org and the American Political Science advocacy page here.) But if that’s the case, Flake would counter, why don’t the rich universities pay for it. Here, he adds another answer: “Do you really think these projects that I’ve mentioned are worth the money?”

The gender project Flake mentioned he offers as a case study in waste. On May 11th, insidehighered.com reported on it this way:

“Neither was that fact lost on Jennifer Lawless, an associate professor of government at American University and principal investigator on one of the grants cited by Flake. The $301,113 grant, on the topic of ‘Understanding the Origins of the Gender Gap in Political Ambition,’ will survey 4,000 high school and college students about their potential interest in running for office, she said, to try to figure out ‘why young people are not getting involved in politics.'”

“Lawless said she hoped that it was not the title’s focus on gender that drew Flake’s attention to her study (though she noted that Congress is 83 percent male). But regardless of what attracted his interest, she said, Flake’s attack on competitively awarded social science research (and its support by a majority of members of the House) both ‘undermines the legitimacy of that process’ and provides ‘evidence to suggest that there’s a general disregard for things that can produce new knowledge.'”

That final remark betrays the academic attitude, that is, the inability to distinguish degrees of benefit and to weigh the costs in relative terms. We don’t need to determine in absolute terms whether a survey of student ambitions will “produce new knowledge” or not. We need to ask, “Is this worth $300,000 of taxpayer funds?” Academic peer review doesn’t like that question, remaining pure by examining the project in terms of its internal merits (though “impact” is one of the criteria of the grant program). The question asks reviewers to make political judgments that academics aren’t particularly suited to make. On this issue, the political scientists are right to object that the Flake Amendment is an expression of politicization, but they are wrong to think that a Federal program delivering tax dollars to political scientists isn’t political from the very beginning.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

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