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Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), Dr. No as the political types call him for his desire to cut funding to most everything and its mother, has introduced a bill to defund political science funding from the National Science Foundation (link via Gary King's Twitter), funding that he finds to be frivolous due to what he sees as a disconnect from regular science. It also sounds like that the debate and vote on this amendment will come up tomorrow.

However, political science does inform the world at large about theories as to why and how the world is how it is politically, and posits possible theories about the problems that plague the world, from war to voting problems.

I should start with a full disclosure here.  I am a doctoral student in Political Science.  I was 3 years ago, about when I stopped blogging/writing on Daily Kos.  If you go back, you can find some of my old papers.

I have also almost certainly worked on research that has gotten NSF grants in my previous capacity as a research/administrative assistant in political science.  So this is personal to me.  However, even if I had not worked on these sorts of things, there is a real need to support research that can help us better understand the world around us, something that Senator Coburn seems to forget.

Despite the personal nature of my post, cutting NSF funding to Political Science would hurt incredibly important research in a variety of fields and areas, hurting our understanding of why individuals, groups, and other political entities make the decisions that they do, and how and whether our systems work effectively.

Generally, Coburn's proposal (linked above) gives us a good starting point to understand how important political science (and social science research in general) is to understanding the world around us.  Coburn (or his people) write:

Most would be surprised to hear that the agency spent $91.3 million over the last 10 years on political "science" and $325 million last year alone on social studies and economics.

Really?  You want to rip on economics research in a time where we need much more of it to understand why we're in the boondoggle we're in? (I digress.) Furthermore, $9.1 million per year is chump change when you consider that the entire NSF budget was about $6.5 billion last year.

But Coburn is under the impression that what political scientists do isn't science.  This is one of the more fascinating debates within the discipline (for example, Harvard, Princeton, and NYU, all Top 20 political science institutions according to US News and World Report, do not use the word "science" in the title of their department names, with Harvard using "Government", and the latter two referring to themselves as Departments of Politics).  However, despite the name issues, the scientific method does come into play regularly in quantitative political science research.   Qualitative research that focuses more on case-based studies and other form of work  has also followed this on some level, though there is much debate over this topic (if you're interested, I recommend both King, Keohane, and Verba's Designing Social Inquiry, and the response to it, Brady and Collier's Rethinking Social Inquiry.)

Despite the debates, political science research does follow a specific path: theories and hypotheses are proposed, they're tested using a variety of data, the data is replicable and retestable, and future research going further into the subject is proposed.  In that regard, in using the method, what is done is scientific, and in terms of Britannica, which defines science as:

any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. In general, a science involves a pursuit of knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws.

it is science, especially considering the experimentation done in regards to data collected by political scientists to best understand the world.

Going beyond Coburn's belief that political science is not science, and into the programs he deems unimportant, we see that Coburn's sense of what political science "is" is quite skewed.  For example: his primary concern seems to be with the American National Election Survey, a survey on elections conducted every 2 years through the University of Michigan with a grant from the National Science Foundation.  Coburn argues:

The grant is to "inform explanations of election outcomes." The University of Michigan may have some interesting theories about recent elections, but Americans who have an interest in electoral politics can turn to CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, the print media, and a seemingly endless number of political commentators on the internet who pour over this data and provide a myriad of viewpoints to answer the same questions. There is no shortage of data or analysis in this field that would require the government to provide funding for additional analysis.

The information you get from the cable and national news networks is not the same as you get from the ANES.  The ANES asks a variety of questions about issues in a set of multiple waves, and also asks questions to the same individuals over time in some cases through panel studies.  In terms of its use in political science, a cursory search of the term "National Election Study" in Google Scholarturns up 905,000 links, with citations discussing topics as disparate as economic performance and presidential elections, to public opinion on English-language voting.  Unlike polls conducted by the networks, the ANES asks questions that may not necessarily be news-makers at the time.  Their primary goal is not making news, but gleaning information.

Coburn also seems to have a major problem with specific research done with NSF grants.  His primary concern seems to be that they are not "science".  However, science is about understanding the world around us, not specifically about the biological/chemical/physical processes of the day.  There are too many to list here (he does throw in a shot at Paul Krugman at the end of his discussion), but it is important to note that all of these studies do have real world effects: to help us understand what effect certain independent variables have on the world around us.  If we don't understand the world around us from the perspective of testing and retesting, how are we to understand why things happen?

So, I've probably babbled on long enough on the importance of political science research.  It is not only scientific, it is important to understanding why people make the decisions that they do in a political setting.  Cutting NSF funding would hurt that understanding.  Science is about the search for data, about understanding the world around us in a way that we can conceptualize through the testing and retesting of what we see and collect in the outside world.  Political science is the same.

So, if you're interested in helping, please contact your Congresscritters about the Coburn Amendment (2631 to H.R. 2847.).  You can call them, or if you just like to email, here's a fun petition. :)

PS - One of Coburn's arguments against political science focuses on it not helping students understand math.  Obviously he's never read a quantitative article.  I spent at least a few hours today dealing with multivariate calculus and integrals, so there's a good deal of math involved with what we do. :)

Originally posted to jlove1982 on Wed Oct 07, 2009 at 06:59 PM PDT.


Should NSF funding for Political Science be cut off?

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