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 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

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.

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.