Like most political scientists, I have been following the war against political science for years, including the U.S. Senate’s surprise vote last March to restrict funding. I even delivered a paper on the history of attempts to marginalize our discipline.
Despite this, for a long time I have felt impotent when it comes to how best to respond to these attacks. There, I said it. I admitted publicly that even though I am a political scientist I have felt somewhat powerless to counter these attempts to defund and discredit our discipline.
Please understand how difficult it is for a political scientist to admit this. It is akin to a mathematician having to confess she is uncomfortable using a calculator or a speech pathologist having to admit she isn’t skilled at communicating. There are just certain things that, given your professional background, you should know how to do and do well.
One thing political scientists should be adept at is responding to governmental attacks, particularly those aimed at our field. After all, this has been going on since at least the 1940s when Vannevar Bush published Science, the Endless Frontier and elected to exclude the social sciences from his definition of ‘science’ on the grounds that we don’t contribute to the nation’s social and economic progress. Following Bush’s lead, social science research wasn’t funded for more than a decade after the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Then after a brief respite, we found ourselves under attack once again during the Reagan administration, an assault that has not only continued but intensified in recent years.
Given the long and sordid history, no one, including me, should have been caught off-guard by what happened in March. If it weren’t so serious it would be almost amusing that the very group of scholars who should be in the best position to see something like this coming and well-prepared to combat it were not. Talk about a gulf between theory and practice.
To be fair, people have been talking, writing, and blogging about this and it has been chronicled in newspapers and journals. The American Political Science Association (APSA) has also been actively posting information, sending out emails, asking members to contact their congressional representatives and so on. And just this week we learned that the APSA hired lobbyists to fight the exclusion – finally!
Nonetheless, if you talk to people in our field they admit that they were not only surprised by what happened in March, but they still aren’t sure what to do about it. I am increasingly convinced there are two explanations for this. First, in the deepest recesses of our collective psyche we aren’t truly convinced that what happened in March really matters. After all, even in good times, NSF funding for social science is so small that restricting it a little further won’t have much of an impact, right? Moreover, the vote in March included an exemption that anyone who is applying for an NSF grant should be able to meet. How hard is it to show your work is in the interest of national security or contributes to economic well-being?
Second, and more importantly, many of us recognize that some of the questions our opponents have raised are worthy of discussion– not that they have been willing to debate them, hence the voice vote in March. Nevertheless, they raise some issues that deserve consideration. Is political science truly a science? In tough economic times isn’t tax money better spent trying to find a cure for cancer than examining voting patterns? Doesn’t congress have a right to determine how money is spent? Shouldn’t we have done a better job showing why our work is useful to society and how can it be made more useful?
Both of these factors may help explain the inertia some of us are feeling when it comes to how best to respond to the attacks. And until recently, I probably erred on the side of sitting back, writing a few emails, delivering a paper or two, and letting APSA respond on our behalf.
I am not sure we have that luxury anymore. Almost a month after the Senate vote, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology sent a letter to Cora Marrett, acting director of the NSF, giving her two weeks to provide “detailed information” about the intellectual merits of a handful of approved projects of interest to members of the panel.
Smith’s action and subsequent explanation as to why his judgment can be substituted for the peer review process are further evidence that these attacks are not going to stop. They are real, sustained, and potentially damaging. They have been going on for decades the only difference now is that they have had their first taste of success.
Jeanne Zaino is a professor of Political Science & International Studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. She writes frequently on issues concerning women and higher education. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org  or follow her on Twitter (@jeannezaino )