Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


(PHOTO: CORGARASHU/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: CORGARASHU/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Outlawed Research

• March 26, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: CORGARASHU/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Congress just cut funding for political science because they don’t understand the good it does. Here are four excellent examples.

Last week, the Congress passed its continuing budget resolution, funding the federal government for another six months. Included in that resolution was an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) prohibiting the National Science Foundation from funding political science research unless that research is certified as promoting America’s national security or economic interests. Political science, which receives roughly $10 million annually in NSF research support, was the only academic discipline singled out in such a way.

Like many academics, political scientists have often done a poor job explaining their discipline to public officials, the media, or society in general. The public has some innate idea of what, say, cancer researchers are doing, but very little idea of what political scientists do. I wanted to take this opportunity to mention just a few political science research projects that are currently being funded by the NSF and to describe why they’re important. You can find these and more on the NSF’s political science website.

• “Effectiveness, Control, and Competence in Public Agencies” – David Lewis is developing theories and a new dataset on the subject of “how incentives in government agencies affect the expertise, competence, and, ultimately, performance of those agencies.” Cost: $69,662.

Why it matters: We want our government agencies to be staffed by people with expertise—people who understand what’s going on and how to efficiently get things done. But we also want those agencies to be flexible and to respond to new situations when, say, the voters decide to put new people in charge of the government. That’s a tradeoff. Lewis is trying to give us a better understanding of what we gain or lose when we move in one direction or another and how to maximize the agency qualities that best serve the people.

• “Experimentally Testing the Roots of Poverty and Violence: Changing Preferences, Behaviors, and Outcomes” – Chris Blattman, Julian Jamison, and Margaret Sheridan are investigating the link between poverty and violence among young men in Liberia. They’re conducting an experiment to determine whether cash payments can substantially reduce both poverty and crime. Cost: $104,872.

Why it matters: We talk a lot about sources of criminal behavior among young men. Do we really know what turns an impoverished young man into a criminal, a gang member, or a terrorist? Might we want to understand ways to head that off, rather than waiting until it becomes a police or military issue?

• “Partisan Polarization and the Representation of Women in the U.S. Congress” – Suzanne Mettler and Danielle Thomsen are trying to understand how a party’s reputation makes it easier or harder for it to recruit female candidates, and how this is affected by partisan polarization. Cost: $22,400.

Why it matters: Is your party concerned about its reputation among female voters and trying to connect with them to win elections? If so, you might want to know about these findings!

• “The Mapping of American Legislatures” – This is Boris Shor’s project, in which he has collected two decades of roll call votes from every state legislator in every state. It’s resulted in a dataset measuring polarization in every state legislature, and will soon provide ideological estimates for every legislator. Cost: $135,261.

Why it matters: Beyond the usefulness of the collected data for people who research state legislatures and parties, there are plenty of reformers and journalists out there who believe partisanship is a serious problem and have suggested some ideas, such as open primaries, for mitigating it. Isn’t it useful to actually know where parties are strong and where they aren’t? Isn’t it helpful to be able to measure whether partisanship changes when you change election rules?

 

THAT’S JUST FOUR of the 215 political science projects currently receiving NSF funding. This is hardly a random sample—my eyes were probably drawn toward the American politics ones—but I think they give a fair representation of the sorts of research scholars are doing with the public money and the questions they’re trying to answer. Despite what Sen. Coburn says, these are not the sorts of questions Americans can figure out for free. They’re questions that concern the quality of our governing institutions and our abilities to improve people’s lives, and they require expertise and funding to answer.

It’s possible, as Greg Koger says, that projects like these might still be able to get funded in the future, assuming that scholars learn how to describe everything as affecting America’s national security and economic interests. It’s also quite possible that NSF will take Congress’ rules seriously, in which case future applications like the ones I cited above simply won’t be able to get funding.

As Hans Noel suggests, if you think that our political system works just fine and that our government serves its people perfectly, then you should be happy with Coburn’s amendment. We’re done. All the important questions have been answered.

On the other hand, if you think improvements might be made, well, it might be helpful to know just where the problems are and what kind of solutions tend to work. That’s precisely what political scientists do. And that’s precisely what Congress just voted to cut off.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.