I'm not sure why I'm jumping in on this again. Oh well.
I suggested in a previous post that if social scientists want to continue to get federal funding we should be prepared to explain why we should continue to get federal funding. I further explained that a simple recitation of "interesting" or "important" findings was not sufficient. Neither was it enough to say that research is worth of subsidy because it is a public good (which it actually isn't). We needed to explain why our work was more in the public interest than some other spending program. After all, if poor folks now have to take drug tests before they can get food aid, the least we should be expected to do is explain why our work deserves federal money instead of, I don't know, condition-less food aid. Or biomedical research, or deficit reduction, or tax cuts, or early childhood education, or universal post-secondary education or or or.
Either we need to explain why our work is in the public interest or we need to admit we're rent-seekers and start trying to be better at it. Presumably we should know how to do that.
So we were given a chance! Krugman went after Cantor, Cantor fired back by naming a particular NSF-funded political science research program, and the recipient political scientist -- Walter Stone of UC-Davis -- took to the Monkey Cage to state his case. Here's his (Stone's! Not Cantor's!) answer to the question:
Are these and other results we are reporting worth the $267,000 support NSF granted the project? I have no idea. Could the money have created more value for the nation if it had been devoted to medical or biological research? Possibly.Nice. Credit to Walter Stone for honesty and humility, but I doubt Cantor feels chastised.
The actual findings of the study are interesting to me. They also support things we generally already knew: proximity models of elections work pretty well in most cases. They worked pretty well in 2010, just as they had previously worked pretty well. 2010 is actually an interesting case for this, since many had assumed that the rise of the Tea Party are thrown a wrench in proximity models. This wasn't so. The findings reinforce my priors, so I like that too.
But in the end it doesn't matter what the findings were. The question is whether it was worth $267,000. I don't know any more than Stone, but it'd be easier for me to argue that it isn't than that it is. The problem with social science is not that we haven't done enough voter surveys or tested the median voter theorem enough, at least in my view. Even if it was... is there any public interest in it? Other than the "knowledge for its sake" sense I can't see it. There's an academic interest in it, but that is not the same as a public interest. Just because findings are interesting or important doesn't mean that they are worth public subsidy. Lots of things are interesting or important that do not.
John Sides previously objected to my suggestion that social scientists were acting like rent-seekers when they defend their, erm, rents. I didn't mean it pejoratively, but the first commenter at the Monkey Cage (an anonymous grad student, apparently) made my point:
I thought we political scientists were supposed to know something about the practice of politics. Quotes likes this are why we are at serious risk of losing our funding. No professional lobbyist would EVER make these kinds of concessions. If I were in the APSA executive office, I would be furious after having read this response.Indeed. But if we acted like lobbyists it'd be even harder to argue that our work was in the public interest, wouldn't it?
Stone ends his response to Cantor with this:
I am confident, however, that some small investment in understanding citizen behavior in the world’s oldest democracy is worthwhile. If we find that voters act reasonably in selecting candidates for seats in the “people’s House”—that they are not dominated by money and other distorting influences—perhaps we will learn to trust that deliberations in Congress, including over how best to spend federal research dollars, will ultimately reflect the public interest.Maybe. But the APSA will disagree if the House votes to cease funding political science through the NSF.