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.