A debate has raged for nearly a year over federal government’s funding of political science research. On one side are those who argue that very little public benefit is derived from such funding and that it only furthers Ivory Tower navel-gazing. On the other side are, not surprisingly, the political scientists themselves and those who claim that scientists not politicians should dictate what research government sponsors. The issue was recently reignited by a major policy speech by House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA). Things have gotten so interesting that even Paul Krugman has jumped in the fray. However, the whole debate is in many respects a tempest looking for a teapot to happen in.
Some background. In May of 2012, Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced legislation to cut off National Science Foundation (NSF) money flowing to political science. Flake’s bill did not seek to reduce the NSF budget, only to redirect its’ priorities. (The House approved the bill 218-208). The American Political Science Association, which has some 15,000 members, came out strongly against the bill being adopted in the Senate.
The NSF spent $11 million on political science research in 2012, which is less than 5% of the total $250 million spent on research in the social and behavior sciences. Many of the funded subjects of inquiry are of great academic interest but of little consequence to anyone else. For example, one group of researchers received $200,000 to study why congressmen make vague statements. Another group of scholars received $750,000 to study the “sacred values” at stake in cultural conflict. Both interesting subjects. But neither will have much of an impact on the “real” world.
Few people will actually read the often dense prose found the peer-review articles that such monies underwrite. If surveys of political scientists are any indication, few of them will be reading the work of their colleagues. And even if engaged citizens were interested in such work, they will have to pay a pretty penny for access to such scholarly publications hidden away in university libraries.
Critics of government funding of political science argue that in an era of austerity the federal government should not be paying for research with little or any public benefit. Representative Cantor framed the issue as a trade off between funding political science and funding medical research: “There is an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research. Doing all we can to facilitate medical breakthroughs for people … should be a priority.” Yet, “Funds currently spent by the government on social science–including on politics of all things–would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.” Of course, curing diseases beats explaining voting behavior everytime.
Opponents of defunding political science adopt a tried and true progressive stand that science should be above or outside of politics. For example, Ezra Klein argues that scientists, rather than politicians, should determine what research enterprises a worthy of government support. Some political scientists have also tried to show the real-world relevance of the research they did with NSF grants.
What to make of this debate? A few points to consider: First, contrary to opponents of defunding, it is completely within the purview of Representative Cantor and Jeff Flake (now a senator) to determine how federal dollars are spent. We elect representatives not scientists, and endow them with the power of the purse, to decide how hard-earned tax dollars are allocated.
Second, even if Flake and Cantor got their way and all the money devoted to political science were redirected to medical research, we still wouldn’t be talking about enough money to fund more than a handful of studies. Given how much the federal government spends, this doesn’t even rank as small potatoes.
Third, there are powerful limits to how much “public benefit” one can expect from contemporary political science research. Partly this is because public policy–the primary area that might be affected–is not a major subject of inquiry. NYU political scientist Lawrence Mead has argued that political science has become “scholastic,” by which he means a “tendency for research to become overspecialized and ingrown.” According to him, today’s political scientists are “focusing more on themselves, less on the real world.” He proposes that more attention be devoted to public policy issues and less to methodology and debates in the existing literature.
The trouble is that there are forces working against making political science more relevant. They include the structure of graduate study, what sort of research and publications count for tenure, and the prevailing norms of the field. For instance, taking stands on charged public issues can often earn political scientists professional and social reproach by their colleagues–especially if the political scientist in question takes a conservative position. As distinguished scholar of international relations Joseph Nye puts it: “in many departments a focus on policy can hurt one’s career.” Furthermore, prescriptive arguments are not what are published in the top journals, which are the keys to advancement and prestige within the discipline. As the former-editor of the discipline’s flagship journal, The American Political Science Review, wrote on the occasion of its’ centennial issue: “if… contributing directly to public dialogue about the merits and demerits of various courses of action were still numbered among the functions of the profession, one would not have known it from leafing through its leading journal.”
Finally, it is actually really hard to do research that is both scientifically rigorous and has contemporary relevance. To the extent that we want the public to benefit from what insights political science can offer, steps might be taken to force scholars funded by the NSF to make their research findings publicly available. And a case can be made, as NSF grant recipient Walter Stone does, that “some small investment in understanding… the world’s oldest democracy is worthwhile” on its own merits. Nonetheless, it is important to recall the most of the most enduring political science scholarship that has engaged a wider audience didn’t receive a dime from the NSF.
All told, it is not so much federal funding of political science that needs changing but the norms of the profession of political science. Yet, cutting of NSF funding is unlikely by itself to change the current scholastic culture of political science.