Publication Date

May 29, 2012

If it’s budget season on Capitol Hill, it’s time, it appears, for attacks on academic research. As early as next week, the U.S. Senate will consider, among many other issues, a gauntlet thrown down by the House on political science funding.

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives voted to prohibit the National Science Foundation (NSF) from using any of its 2013 funds on its political science program. The budget amendment, introduced by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), passed the House 218–208. Rep. Flake had originally asked for deep cuts in the entire NSF budget, but when that failed, he turned his attention to political science. Doug Lederman covered the story for Inside Higher Edhere, and the American Political Science Association (APSA) issued a statement, along with action and talking points. Shortly thereafter, the Consortium of Social Science Associations (of which the AHA is a governing member) urged the Senate to oppose reductions in funding or elimination of programs at the NSF. The APSA is sending out updates via Twitter and asking supporters to use and follow the hashtag #PoliSciNSF.

As the news rolled through the blogosphere over the last couple of weeks, we saw issues old and new emerge. Beyond the debate over Rep. Flake’s amendment itself, there was a debate about how to have the debate, a debate over whether political science counts as science, and a debate about when and how publicly funded research should be more accessible to the public. Viewed together, the unfolding discussions show how easy it is to isolate an academic discipline like political science. Rep. Flake’s strangely specific attack exposed and exploited several rifts.

Among supporters, there’s a debate over how to defend political science. Christopher Zorn, in a guest post for The Monkey Cage, argued that defenders of the funding should resist the temptation to demonstrate how and why the projects funded are valuable, and should instead focus on the process.

The panelists, ad hoc reviewers, and program officers at NSF operate in a scientific peer review system that is second to none. … [H]undreds of very smart people spent thousands of hours evaluating many, many proposals to distribute the funding that Representative Flake finds unnecessary.

The direct implication of the Flake amendment is that we should substitute his judgment for all of those individuals’, regarding the merits of both the work that has been funded to date and all potential future work that NSF might fund in our field.

Most of the Internet commentary, however, shows just how difficult it is to resist being pulled onto the ground of defending the product, rather than the process.

Ezra Klein at the Washington Post is almost certainly an avid consumer of political science research, directly or indirectly. He wrote that he doesn’t want “meddling congressmen” making decisions better left to peer review. And yet, he has misgivings about government funding of any academic research because “there’s a decided lack of public-spiritedness in how [academic disciplines] act.” He charges that they make their research inaccessible by publishing in “pricey journals” and by using “convoluted rhetoric that confuses and dissuades interested outsiders.”

If the research is government funded, should researchers make more of an effort to talk to the public? Klein charges that there’s often “no effort put into connecting research with the public debate.” Roger Berkowitz, associate professor at Bard College and academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center, took up one of the studies mocked by Rep. Flake and wrote, “I have no doubt such a study has uses. But I do wonder if those writing the study could make those uses more accessible.” Somehow it seems doubtful that a more accessible abstract would satisfy congresspersons looking to make big statements through manipulations of tiny portions of the budget; further, the discussions about professionals talking to the public (which are ongoing at the AHA) can become stifling when driven by questions of politics and purse strings.

That’s because when you involve those considerations, soon you are wondering about whether to talk at all. Klein published an anonymous response to his post from a researcher who found that fear of critique by politicians was affecting even research that was far from the funding debate: “I have received several peer reviews from the top journals in the discipline that have chastised me for potentially making politicians uncomfortable and therefore endangering NSF funding for others with my research.”

Meanwhile, some in the physical sciences have taken this opportunity to ask for a divorce from political and social science. Tom Hartsfield, writing for Real Clear Science, wants the NSF to stay out of funding political science because “it does not fall under the jurisdiction of science. It does not and cannot follow the rigorous requirements of reproducibility, testability and objective truth required of science.” He has found agreement among writers at Secondhand Smoke and the Science 2.0 blog. These arguments lament political and social science watering down the meaning of “science” and don’t seem to want to share funding (or even a campus building) with these allegedly ideologically driven disciplines.

It bears mentioning that we are talking here about how to spend roughly $80 million, or a mere 0.002% of projected 2013 federal expenditures. It also bears mentioning that Rep. Flake is running for the Senate. The questions of how scientific social science really is, of how academics should talk to the public, and of how involved the public should be in publicly funded projects are all vitally important and deserve the most dispassionate and least contentious conditions available. Those conditions do not seem to be prevailing.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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