direct action: save political science

From a fellow scatterbrain:

I think this might be worth posting on scatterplot, although you may have already seen it on the CBSM mailing list. It is specifically aimed at political science, but its bad for all academics, regardless of discipline or area of study:

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has offered an amendment to the National Science Foundation appropriations bill (now on the Senate floor) to eliminate NSF’s funding of political science research. If this get passed, then other social sciences might be next. In fact Coburn’s position paper explaining the rationale behind his amendment eliminating funding for political science at NSF, includes some references to other social sciences already (see his webpage).

There is a link to a petition protesting Coburn’s amendment at.

Here is a link to Coburn’s website.  This is a 7-page position paper explaining the “rationale” behind his amendment eliminating funding for political science at NSF.

Also here is a link to the actual amendment

Update: I should note that I cut and paste this quickly as I ran out the door this afternoon. The email was from David Schleifer, who borrowed heavily from a note sent out on the Collective Behavior/Social Movements listserv, penned by Nella Van Dyke.

22 thoughts on “direct action: save political science”

  1. Doesn’t the senator maybe have a point?

    I mean, we are in the worst financial times since the GD. And, as much as *we* think what we do is important, it’s really not stimulating the economy as much as applied sciences will and it doesn’t stand as a good a chance of directly enhancing quality of life the way that, say, climate research or bioinformatics research might.

    We social scientists often get caught up in our own self interest so much that we lose sight about what people in the (gasp) real world (who make hard decisions) have to balance (i.e., limited resources in challenging times).


    1. Doesn’t the senator maybe have a point?

      He certainly does. The fact that the logical structure and substantiation of his “point” could apply to virtually anything discussed on television opens interesting possibilities for further argumentation.

      It all depends of your definition of “point”, of course. I like to think that arguments need to meet some minimal standards of logic and substance before being discussed as right or wrong, but I perfectly understand that’s just me.

      Plus, I like Coburn. His amendment is a huge step up the smartness curve in recent American politics. I can only encourage that kind of intellectual elevation, especially in the U.S. Senate.


    2. In regard to short-run stimulus of aggregate demand, I have no reason to believe that spending on political science research is any less effective than spending on climate research or bioinformatics. Now, if you want to argue the long-run benefits to p.s. research are lower (on the margin) than in those other disciplines, you may have a case, but I’d have to see the details.


  2. “Doesn’t the senator maybe have a point?”

    No – Tom Coburn knows jack-s**t of what he’s talking about. Political science represents a tiny fraction of NSF funding and much what he plans on cutting is incredibly important in informing policy and laws regarding election reform and financing. The information can prevent more waste in the government than was spent on collecting it.

    Here’s his reason we should not be funding political science.

    “The University of Michigan may have some interesting theories about recent elections, but Americans who have an interest in electoral politics can turn to CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, the print media, and a seemingly endless number of political commentators on the internet who pour over this data and provide a myriad of viewpoints to answer the same questions. There is no shortage of data or analysis in this field that would require the government to provide funding for additional analysis.”

    We don’t need to fund political science because we have effing cable news. WTF… this pisses me off to no end.


  3. Tinkerer,
    I agree with you that social scientists can get caught up in our their/own self-interest. However, completely gutting funding for one specific discipline seems like a slippery slope into a permanent end to funding for poli sci, and a politically charged attack on a discipline based on an ill informed understanding of what it does and how it does its work. As aftersox points out, the position piece makes this clear by arguing that CNN, Fox, and news pundits can take up the mantle of political science (which, according to Senator Coburn, “is not really a science at all”), and that Coburn’s opposition to poli sci is, at least partially, politically motivated.

    Arguing that the only things we should be funding right now are the hard sciences and things that immediately improve the economy seems remarkably short sighted. Isn’t this when we need research on social structure, politics, and economics the most? Politics influence how money gets distributed, how the global economy operates, and how the political/economic structure influences our understanding of these problems. Frankly, I’d argue that it is important to know things like the effect of politicians relying heavily on vague policy statements, campaign finance reform, the “costs” of voting, and human rights (all of which are lambasted in the position piece), and the importance of these things don’t just go away because the economy took a dip.

    While I certainly don’t think (or expect) that NSF funding will stay at the same level, I would hope that what political scientists do isn’t so frivolous that it can get sacrificed on the altar of improving the economy for being “not as important.”


  4. soctinkerer is right.

    Can someone make the argument that without public subsidy then we would not have the socially optimal level of political science research? What exactly are the positive externalities that come from political science research that can’t be internalized?


    1. Josh, the basic argument, which I know you know, is that the knowledge produced by NSF grants is a public good. Good political science research leads to better public policy. I’m sure there it sometimes informs business decisions as well.


  5. This is about anti-intellectualism. Period. Coburn picked the field that he thought would be the easiest pickings, and this time it happened to be political science. Defunding any discipline for political reasons – especially scary, irrational, misinformed reasons – is a bad idea. That you can make reasonable arguments evaluating the relative merit for funding for x over y does not change the fact that this is an attack on research and knowledge in general.


  6. My 2c: Tina’s right, soctinkerer and joshmccabe are wrong. And pechersky’s elaboration is spot-on. The point isn’t that NSF ought to be immune to cuts, but that singling out a particular discipline because a senator (or probably his aide) thinks the titles of some articles sound funny is bad policy, and that the likelihood of a slippery slope is strong.

    I should note that I have a conflict of interest here, as my research is mentioned in Coburn’s list of wasteful social science.

    The central problem, IMHO, is that the justification for science is (or ought to be)–science. Coburn’s implication is that science is only valuable insofar as it produces immediate technologies, whether in health or engineering. Once you’ve started down that road, there’s lots of science (social and otherwise) that seems trivial or useless. But the logic of so-called “pure” science is, and should be, that there is no immediate application, and that the possible applications may only be known once the actual science is complete. Granted that’s a hard case to make to legislators, but it’s the right case.

    joshmccabe: We wouldn’t have ANES or GSS without public subsidy from NSF. If you include public subsidy through state university systems, Pell grants, etc., we wouldn’t have any social science at all to speak of. How would you “internalize” these?


    1. “that there is no immediate application, and that the possible applications may only be known once the actual science is complete. Granted that’s a hard case to make to legislators, but it’s the right case.”

      Don’t worry, Andrew, if there’s one profession that perfectly grasps the concept of not having the faintest idea of what is going to happen with what you are doing before you actually complete it, that’s legislators.


  7. I’m shocked it wasn’t sociology….But I guess our budget is too small to show up on the spreadsheet.

    Coburn’s equation of ANES with schlock polls from CNN, Fox, etc. is disturbing, but not unexpected. I have to chuckle a bit, though, since I’ve seen a number of supposedly serious (tweed jackets, bow-ties) political scientists taking such non-scientific polls seriously. Even making commentary on random fluctuations of polls from week to week. If they can make inferences based on polls with questionable sampling methodologies and poor response rates, why do they need the ANES? But, I guess they don’t need ANES…I do….


  8. I can’t get past the facts that (a) the NSF will process a grant for $958 (the administrative costs must be double that); and (b) Coburn thought that picking on a $958 grant would help him make his case that political science is a waste of taxpayer money.


  9. Coburn’s proposal seems like the sort of thing conservatives do from time to time either to tweak the nose of liberal social scientists or to ingratiate themselves with their conservative constituents. Henry at
    The Monkey Cage
    mentions some earlier versions:

    In the spring of ‘06 Kay Bailey Hutchison promoted the idea of cutting all social-science funding from NSF, and briefly introduced legislation.

    In 1995, during Gingrich’s high tide, the House Budget Committee endorsed a no-social-science bill:

    And there was a similar round in ‘81.

    Henry’s post has links detailing each of these.


  10. Look, does it really matter if Coburn wanted to cut the funding because he thought it would bring the second coming of Christ? There’s 535 members of congress and each has a different reason for their particular vote. Why should we artbitrarily pick one for each bill and decide whether to be for or against it based on their rationale?

    Tina says defunding any discipline for political reasons is a bad idea, but can someone honestly tell me that any legislative decision isn’t made for political decisions?

    The only reason to be for or against a piece of legislation is because it makes sense to you.


  11. The only reason to be for or against a piece of legislation is because it makes sense to you.

    What a charmingly nihilist position. Why does a given piece of legislation make sense to some and not to others? How are people convinced thereof? What does “sense” mean to legislators, constituents, staff, and scientists? Why bother to deliberate? No matter – better simply to declaim from on high what legislation is and is not and why one ought or ought not be concerned about it.


    1. Oh c’mon Andrew, you know exactly what I meant. The focus should be on the merits of the legislation itself, not on the intentions of one of its proponents. Who said subjective evaluations can’t be changed though debate and deliberation?

      Let’s look at what you’re saying though. What’s the difference between “support funding for political science research because Coburn is anti-intellectual” and “support the Vietname war because those protesting it are pro-Vietnamese communists?” All I’m saying is that there’s always going to be baptist and bootlegger coalitions in politics so you can’t judge the merits of a piece of legislation on just intentions.


  12. ok. i wonder if the Senator caught wind that today’s Nobel winner in economics is a self-described “political scientist” (as reported in the AP).

    But doesn’t change the fact that funding climate research is infinitely more important than channeling scarce money towards understanding why certain people vote Republican instead of Democrat ;)

    Let’s not take ourselves too seriously here, folks. No one would miss us if sociology disappeared tomorrow from most major universities.


    1. You don’t think Lin Ostrom’s work is relevant for understanding climate change? She’s spent her career figuring out how to manage natural resources (water, forests, fisheries, etc) more effectively, as have many other political scientists.


  13. At the risk of taking myself/ourselves too seriously, I disagree with two of soctinkerer’s statements:

    funding climate research is infinitely more important than channeling scarce money towards understanding why certain people vote Republican instead of Democrat

    Apparently climate research is actually only important if Democrats are in charge – Republicans just ignore it, or impugn the motives of its authors. Hence neither is necessarily more important – certainly not “infinitely” more! Furthermore, do you have any evidence that money not spent on sociology or political science would have been spent on climate research, or something else you deem “infinitely more important”?

    No one would miss us if sociology disappeared tomorrow from most major universities.

    Again – evidence? I would miss us, but I guess I’m no one. Our students would. Our collaborators would. People who apply our ideas in business, politics, natural sciences, community organizing, etc., would. Future generations of alumni would, as they would be denied access to important insights about the way the social world works.


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