Monday, June 25, 2012

Does Political Science Deserve Public Funds?

. Monday, June 25, 2012

If you pay any attention at all to the political science blogosphere you know that the House of Representatives recently decided to prohibit the National Science Foundation from directing $14mn roughly -- 0.2% of its budget -- to political science research. This has caused much consternation among (some) political scientists, as well as indignant blog posts from political scientists and e-mails from APSA asking us to fill in form letters and send them to our Congresspeople.

What it has not done, generally, is come up with any sort of explanation for this event that is informed by political science, nor any sort of strategy for mobilization that would ensure outcomes that benefit the discipline.

This I find ironic. Faced with an banal existential threat to its existence, political science has responded by a) acting as if social science methods do not exist, and b) acting as if it knows nothing at all about political mobilization, organization, competition, institutions, or much of anything else relevant to altering outcomes in the political sphere. The response from academics has been to whine, get defensive, and generally miss the point (which is almost surely not about whether political science is cool or interesting or even important).

In fact it's worse than simple ineptitude: rather than unifying around some strategy that will secure existing funding, the discipline has turned on itself*.

In a sense I think this goes back to broader schisms in the discipline**. Particularly in IR the past decade-plus has seen a lot of internecine battles over what is best practice for academics. Everything from "what we should study" to "how we should study it" has been debated, quite vituperatively, in journals, blogs, conference panels, graduate student seminars, letters to editors, and bitch-sessions at the tavern. The period from Perestroika to TRIPs has moved us a bit from knee-jerk anti-positivism towards "let a thousand flowers bloom", but there is another problem: the NSF.

Actual funding from the NSF is pretty paltry; getting those funds neither makes nor break political science as a discipline, and almost any NSF-funded project could be funded in other ways***. But getting an NSF grant is prestigious: it improves your application and tenure packets; it can lead to a reduction in teaching load thus increasing research output; it can help you get a full professorship or endowed chair; it boosts your status. Right now the NSF does not fund all types of political science research equally. It privileges certain types of projects, and in particular those smell that smell especially "science-y": studies that build and/or analyze large data sets. As it happens most of my research uses this kind of data set, and I certainly wish there were more of them in the world, but not everybody in political science does. In fact, most of us don't.

According to the most recent TRIPs, a majority of IR scholars consider themselves to be something other than positivists (Q. 26) and only 15% of us employ quantitative methodologies as our primary research method (Q. 28), although another 22% sometimes use them as secondary methods (Q. 29). Obviously international relations is not all of political science, and I'm sure that a greater proportion of Americanists use stats. But (I would expect) fewer comparativists do, and almost no political theorists do. To the extent that NSF funding is biased in favor of quant studies, it is biased against the majority of the discipline. Given that hiring and promotion decisions (and general prestige) are influenced by ability to attract grants from places like the NSF, this is no small thing.

This is probably why Jacqueline Stevens wants to see funding either abolished or distributed via a lottery system which would not privilege some types of work over others ex ante. To me that makes little sense, but I can see why some would prefer either outcome to the status quo ante.

Regardless of where you come down on this -- and I don't really care that much either way -- it's hard not to notice that political science has not covered itself in glory. It seemingly has no theory of politics that can help folks understand why this is happening or how to change it. Its best response to this challenge is classic rent-seeking -- we deserve this money because we do cool stuff -- but without any ability to effectively seek rents. That, in and of itself, might be reason enough to discontinue funding.

*Links to much other discussion can be found at that one. I'm too lazy right now to hyperlink them all myself.

**I'm not the first to point this out. Henry Farrell did as well, in one of the dozens of posts political scientists have dedicated to this bill.

***Phil Arena has one such proposal here, although I'm not too sure how serious he is about it. I find the fact that political scientists are not willing to fund their own research through their professional associations to be another indication that it probably doesn't deserve all that much funding. Some of his commenters suggest that public funding of political science is necessary because it generates public goods which will not be realized without government intervention. To that I say a) show me the evidence****, and b) public goods can be supplied without government intervention, particularly if there are motivated groups who can easily identify the location of those goods and organize to capture them. APSA is already organized, and presumably in a better position to find these public goods than Congress or even the NSF.

****Or even the logic. Most political science research, including NSF-funded research, is published by journals with subscription feeds that are prohibitively for individuals or even most libraries. Therefore the work is most definitely not "non-excludable"... it is excluded! So it is not a public good. But even if it were it would only be a public good in the most facile sense of "the creation and dissemination of knowledge is good" which merely begs the question: maybe, but wouldn't that money be better used in ways that spread knowledge in different ways? E.g., funding public libraries, giving laptops to low-income people, etc.


Latinamericanist said...

I'm not disagreeing all that much with the rest of your post, but your public goods point is week.
1. While I'm all for open access journals, journals are in public libraries where people can go to read them if they really want to.
2. More importantly: The public good would be the effect of the articles, not the article itself. If what we learn through polisci research leads to, e.g., better US foreign policy, better development aid, better security policy etc. than it provides a public good. Whether it does is open to debate, but a lot of posts and letters I have seen try to make exactly that case.

Latinamericanist said...

uhg - that's "weak", not "week".

Does Political Science Deserve Public Funds?
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