Eric Cantor and his ilk are right: taxpayers shouldn’t pay for research that doesn’t benefit the public.
Yale’s Harkness Tower is not made of ivory. (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)
The National Science Foundation spent $200,000 on a study of why members of Congress make “vague” statements. This money could have been spent on vital cancer research. The same could have been done with the $750,000 spent studying the “sacred values” involved in cultural conflict and the $50,000 spent studying how members of Congress negotiate legislation.
This type of research is what compels politicians to propose cutting the roughly $11 million in NSF cash that funds political science research. The latest to do so is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who made his plea during a major speech on Tuesday. In May, then-Rep. Jeff Flake (now a senator) introduced a bill that would do the same.
“The federal government has an appropriate and necessary role in providing funding for basic medical research. Doing everything we can to facilitate medical breakthroughs for people…should be a priority. We can and must do better,” said Cantor Tuesday. “Funds currently spent by government on the social sciences – including on the politics of all things – would be better spent on helping to find cures for disease.”
I am okay. After four years of desperately searching in vain for how my degree could make the world a better place, the lack of real-world impact convinced me to quit a PhD. political science program. I’m not alone either.
“We are kidding ourselves if we think this research generally has the obvious public benefit that we claim for it,” Indiana University professor Jeffrey C. Isaac admitted in 2009. “We political scientists, we can and should do a better job of making the public relevance of our work clearer and doing more relevant work.”
Critics of defunding, such as The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein, argue that scientists – not government – are better judges of what research is worth funding. While it’s true that many of the most influential political scientists have tried to steer their colleagues towards relevance, the vast majority will have no reason to change the way they look at their navel until they have to. seek funding from organizations that directly benefit from their research.
The problem is that modern “political science” is rarely tied to public policy or diplomacy. The scientific study of politics is the hyper-analytical mathematical, psychological, and anthropological study of civic behavior. “Radical Moderation: Recapturing Power in Two-Party Parliamentary Systems” is the title of a recent article published in the prestigious American Journal of Political Science. This is a quantitative study of how the reputation of a political party persists between elections for countries with a non-presidential system.
At a dinner for a distinguished professor who has also served as a consultant to the UN, I asked our guest if she had ever witnessed a real impact of political science research. She literally burst out laughing.
The study of political reputation, congressional dialogue, or cultural values is not entirely useless, but the discipline of political science lacks a system for turning abstract research into practical results. The physical sciences, for example, are awash with esoteric mathematical and biological models that bear little resemblance to the real world. Yet many universities have entire sections of campus dedicated to helping scientists commercialize their work.
In political science, the opposite is true. Joseph Nye, a Harvard political scientist and former Undersecretary of Defense, lamented: “Researchers are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the political world, and in many departments focusing on the politics can harm your career. Progress is faster. for those who develop mathematical models, new methodologies or theories expressed in jargon that is unintelligible to decision makers. A survey of articles published during the lifetime of the American Political Science Review found that about one in five dealt with political prescription or criticism during the first half of the century, while only a handful l did after 1967.”
I experienced this firsthand as a 24-year-old idealistic graduate student. Realizing that I needed to develop close personal ties with the policy makers I eventually wanted to help, I began moonlighting as a journalist while in college. While on a trip, while moderating a panel discussion with a member of Congress on how technology can improve the democratic process, I received an email from a well-meaning professor chastising me for taking time for research. “You really need to focus on your academic work and stop wasting time on these kinds of excursions,” he wrote.
As a result, even potentially useful research is overlooked by policy makers who have little contact with experts in the discipline. At a dinner hosted by my university for a prominent Harvard professor who has also served as a consultant to the United Nations, I asked our guest if she had ever witnessed a real impact of political science research. She literally burst out laughing and regaled the now perturbed table of academics with her experience with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had apparently ignored all academic experts during his country’s transition to democracy and instead decided on the structure of government in a tent with his comrades.
Part of the problem is that the culture of political science exalts scholars who discover fundamental and timeless precepts of good governance and not those who tackle current issues, such as health or education. As a result, research that is both statistically rigorous and practically relevant is extremely difficult.
For example, one of the most influential practical researches of the last half-century found that building strong communities, where neighbors have frequent informal interactions with each other, significantly improves social well-being, such as measured by health, happiness, and government effectiveness. of a city. The study took Harvard’s Robert Putnam 25 years to observe how natural variations in communities across Italy affected the lives of its more than 50 million citizens.
Quite reasonably, most researchers are reluctant to devote half their career to a single study and simply avoid the challenge of relevant research. Instead, they turn to clever mathematical models that check their search box but do little to help real-world public policy. Quite rightly, Putnam himself has been a vocal critic of his own discipline and once told me that he begs his colleagues to do research that passes the “mother-in-law test”: you should be able explain to your mother-in-law why you’re working on it.
There are political scientists who do valuable research in less than 25 years, but most do not work in academia. The World Bank is helping to develop online tools for direct democracy, which allow Third World citizens to make decisions about their own local budgets and redistribute public services more equitably. Freed from the obligation to publish in peer-reviewed journals, non-academic political scientists are tasked with solving very specific problems.
Moreover, political science also has an important role to play in shaping the next generation of policy makers, citizens and diplomats. However, as a graduate teaching assistant, I have found that the mere existence of political scientists in the Ivory Tower undermines higher education.
“I failed biochemistry twice, so I switched to science,” one of my students told me. My college’s social sciences, especially political science, were a lazy oasis for smart medical school students looking to improve their GPAs. A professor of pharmaceutical chemistry called it the “pre-med game”, where mediocre students in the physical sciences would move on to the social sciences in a cheap attempt to gain a head start on the medical school competitive exam.
Although many professors don’t care much about teaching, they do need a certain threshold of students to enroll in their courses: low attendance can affect both the department’s budget and the salary of the professor. As a result, social science departments have an incentive to offer easier courses that draw students away from other schools. Indeed, in a moment of candour, a professor admitted to me that most of his colleagues consider teaching simply as a means of “subsidizing” their research. Since career scholars lack the experience to teach applicable material, departments are stuck with overly academic courses that leave students with a mountain of debt and no employable skills.
Worse still, my old department actively avoided the few journalists and practitioners who were brought in as part-time lecturers. Although their courses were often the most popular, the professors faced the constant threat of professor-researchers who pressured department administrators to fire them – and lured reluctant students back into more scientific courses.
Unfortunately, the world needs useful political science research. Much of the Middle East is or will be in transition to democracy. Those governments, which have a clean slate to design great political systems, could desperately use research on how to build consensus-driven democracies, which are known to be far more minority-friendly than traditional two-party systems.
Political scientists have the knowledge to solve all kinds of modern political problems. But they don’t have the incentive. So, Congress, please defund my discipline — or at least put someone outside the academy in charge of doling out the money. This is the only way to see this beautiful social science theoretically put at the service of humanity.