Can Poli Sci Do Politics?

Senate vote to bar support from the NSF has many scholars wondering whether their discipline needs a new strategy. Also being debated: Was an exception to the ban a win for research or a loss on principle?

March 25, 2013

"Many political scientists are bad at politics, dislike it, or both," wrote one political scientist in a comment to a blog post about the Senate vote to bar the National Science Foundation from funding most political science research. The scholar recalled that the last time there was a move in Congress to impose such a ban, "I was in grad school, and the department chair sent out a call for ideas. When I suggested contacting a former faculty member who had left to work on the Hill, you'd have thought I suggested holding pagan orgies on the quad."

The comment -- posted on A Plain Blog About Politics  -- is part of an intense discussion among political scientists in the wake of the Senate vote, which applies to funds through October. There are of course tons of columns, blog posts and so forth about how foolish, and potentially dangerous, most scholars believe the vote is. Many outside political science are alarmed by the idea of Congress singling out a discipline in this way, and refusing to let the peer review process continue to decide which studies are worthy.

But while there may be a consensus in academe that Congress shouldn't have voted the way it did, there isn't a consensus on what political science can or should do about it.

A number of political scientists are calling for a new approach to lobbying, and for the discipline to become more engaged in ... politics. Why, they are asking, was a field devoted to the study of government unable to win support for keeping a mere $13 million in the budget? Could a different lobbying or public relations strategy have changed things -- and might it change things going forward?

Also up for debate is an exemption added to the Senate measure that would permit the NSF to back political science research deemed essential to national security or economic interest. Some see this part of the measure as a giant loophole that (with a little grant-writing finesse) can clear the way for most projects to continue to receive support. Others see the measure as accepting the idea that only research with immediately clear practical implications is worthy of support -- a principle that would doom many social science studies (and potentially work done in other disciplines as well).

Not as Loved as Baby Seals

The vote in the Senate -- part of what was viewed as a "must pass" budget bill -- was pushed by Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who believes in shrinking federal spending over all and who has made political science a particular target. As the vote approached, the American Political Science Association urged its members to contact their lawmakers, and other organizations also spoke out against the measure. The president of the Association of American Universities sent a strongly worded letter to Congressional leaders, blasting the Coburn amendment and defending the value of political science research.

Given that this campaign failed, political scientists are calling the strategy "lame" and wondering why more couldn't be done. Michael Brintnall, executive director of the APSA, said that the association was "working actively on both short-term and long-term strategies here, within political science and with other social science groups." But he said that "it's too soon to comment on next steps."

Many critics point to the success that they see for other research areas in fending off attacks. Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, wrote: "Go after physics or history, and beloved scholars like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Doris Kearns Goodwin will take to the airwaves and make you look bad, explaining how under-funding scientific exploration or failing to understand our past weakens our country. Who rushes to the defense of political science? Notably, a large chunk of former political science majors are now lawyers and politicians — not exactly up there with nuns and baby seals in terms of likability. There’s really not much downside to attacking us."

While some focus on recruiting prominent allies, others say it is time for political scientists to turn to politics. In 2012, after a failed attempt to cut off federal funding of political science, the National Capital Area Political Science Association sent a letter to the APSA's leaders calling for the association to add to its own government relations staff and to increase its lobbying.

The letter (which has been again circulating among some political scientists in the days following the Senate vote) calls for shifting more APSA resources to lobbying, the creation of an advisory board of political scientists to work with association staff, and a coordinated effort to have political science departments reach out to Congressional offices regularly, not just when there are proposals like the Coburn amendment in play.

The APSA, the letter said, needs to become a "more public-facing organization" to fend off attacks like the ones coming from Senator Coburn.

Others argue that there are people already well-positioned to help political science who just need to be organized. The political scientist Jonathan Bernsteintrying to confirm institutional identification -sj blogged that "political science does have one advantage that virtually no other interest group shares: political scientists just happen to have tons of personal connections with members of Congress and Hill staff." He wrote that all of those contacts "should translate into access -- or potential access, at least -- allowing political science to fight well above its weight class. But it's only apt to be successful if it's organized, and as far as I know it really isn't."

Other political scientists are suggesting that there's not much that is going to work. "From a straight interest group perspective political scientists don't matter. At all. The NSF funding for political science is a $13 million appropriation spread out geographically. There is no concentrated interest in a particular Congressional district or state to motivate a member of Congress to fight for this issue," wrote Daniel W. Drezner of Tufts University.

"Now, one could argue that if you believe in epistemic communities -- i.e., the power of collective expertise -- to influence uninformed members of Congress, then maybe political scientists could function as Weberian activists and educate members about the inherent value of political science," he added. "The thing is, as I've argued previously, politicians and pundits do not think of politics as a scientific enterprise. Maybe a few pundits developed a new appreciation for statistics following the 2012 election, but that's not quite the same thing. So an epistemic community of political scientists won't cut it."


Drezner quipped that he could come up with only one strategy that might work: "Suppose a rival great power -- say, a country that rhymes with 'Dinah' -- were to suddenly throw around huge research $$$ to develop a comparative advantage in poli sci. Say that the money was so good that it started to attract the cream of the political science crop. That might spur Congress to freak out about the existence of a political science gap."

Howard J. Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, said that the vote last week is part of a broader "attack on all of social science." His organization was formed in 1981 to fight off proposals from the Reagan administration to end support for social science, and the group has been engaged in the issue ever since. Silver noted that Republican Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, has questioned why money is spent on any social science research, not just political science.

Silver said it was important for scholars to explain their work and to speak up when politicians suggest that their studies are irrelevant. Many of the political attacks on the NSF budget, Silver said, are simply based on incorrect information. He cited one favorite example: Mark Sanford, then a Republican representative from South Carolina (the job to which he is now trying to return), in 1998 said that the NSF should stop supporting research on ATMs (thinking that this was research on banking machines). In fact the NSF was studying a different kind of ATM --  the asynchronous transfer modes that play a key role in high-speed networking.

"The tendency has been for Congress to look at titles and descriptions of research that seem silly," Silver said. "We know that some of the things that look silly turn out to be very important, where congressmen misinterpreted titles."

Can You Drive a Truck Through It?

Another key political and strategy question for political scientists is whether to embrace or fight the exemption for work that relates to national security or economic growth. Steve Saideman, of Carleton University in Canada, wrote of the exemption: "My first take on this is that this will simply add one page to an NSF application (which contains many forms/pages): Justify how your proposal relates to national security or the economy.  While some have speculated that this means money will flow away from American politics and towards international relations and comparative politics, I am not so sure...."

He noted that Senate critics of political science have cited as examples of research that is not needed studies on climate change and whether lawmakers represent constituents. "I don't think it would take much work for an articulate grant-writer to suggest how climate change is an issue that affects the economy, or that democratic representation might have national security implications (do democracies that dis-serve their publics have more coups/riots/etc?)," Saideman wrote.

Silver said that the question of how big the exemption is came up a lot in last week's discussions in Senate offices. He said that some senators were told that, because of the exemption, the Coburn measure "looked uglier than it really was" and that there was "nothing to worry about."

Whether that is true depends on how the NSF interprets the exemption (assuming it is enacted or stays in place), Silver said. A narrow interpretation -- say that national security only would cover research about the organization of terrorist cells -- would obviously exclude most research. A broader exemption could include a lot more.

Whether the exemption is defined narrowly or broadly could have a big impact, Silver said. For instance, of the NSF support for political science, he is particularly worried about projects that are used by many scholars. One example is the American National Election Studies, a joint project of Stanford University and the University of Michigan, and used by scholars nationwide.

"If you consider the sustaining of a national election system to be a national security issue, that would be O.K.," Silver said. "Senator Coburn may disagree with this."

And if Coburn and others feel that the NSF is disregarding Congressional intent, that may only motivate more proposed cuts, he said.

Political scientists have been debating on Twitter in the past few days whether the exemption will help or not. One comment suggested that it could go either way. "Lesson of the Coburn amendment plus national security exceptions: instrumental justifications can be poor tactics. Can be used against you."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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