Tuesday
Mar052013

Sigh.

I find myself having to do this approximately once a year, now. Here we go again.

Congress - this time in the form of Eric Cantor - is yet again considering cutting all National Science Foundation funding for Political Science. The reasoning? Political Scientists sometimes do studies that don't seem to be relevant to anything, plus we can find out all we need to know about politics just by watching the news.

Someone the Atlantic chose to call a "former political scientist", despite the fact that this was actually someone who quit a Political Science PhD program, decided to write a piece arguing in favor of the cuts. Here it is: Please Defund Political Science.

As several other commentators on the article pointed out, this piece has so much wrong with it that it would take all day for me to respond to it point by point, but there are a couple of things that bear emphasizing. I was going to comment directly on the article, but it says I have to log in and join the Atlantic. So I'm writing my response here, instead.

First, just a note: the fact that this person quit a PhD program because he found it more interesting to do something like journalism or punditry is fine. It doesn't make him stupid, and it doesn't even indicate that he quit because he couldn't hack it. These two things are both possible, but not necessary inferences from the fact of his quitting. There are lots of people who find that a PhD program is not right for them. Several people quit my program - one because he found that he cared more about method than about anything else and he could make way more money putting those skills to use for IBM. One because he found out he was more interested in law school. One because she realized it wasn't what she wanted to do with her life. These are all valid choices. Do they therefore imply that anyone who stays in the program is doing so because it's all a pointless waste of time and they desperately desire to spend their lives doing meaningless things for fairly low pay in a context where they have to justify their existence almost monthly? No, it doesn't.

First point: the author - and Congressmembers - frequently argue that Political Science research shouldn't be funded by the public; they should get their funding from private sources, the way, say, pharmaceutical researchers do. This is because the public shouldn't be required to fund things that could be funded privately by the people who benefit from them and want them done.
As it is precisely the government and the public - and pretty much exclusively the government and the public - who benefit from Political Science research, I don't see why they shouldn't fund it. I can name several Political Scientists whose work has been read by highly-placed political and military actors and has, for better or for worse, influenced their behavior (e.g. Peter Feaver and Chris Gelpi's work on popular support for military missions; Eliot Cohen's work on relations between the executive and the top military branches; all Michael Doyle's early work on the democratic peace; Bob Keohane's work on how to build a liberal international order; Robert Putnam's work, cited by the author; Steve Rosen's work on military innovation, etc. etc. etc.).


Second, the author has produced no evidence that Political Science research does not, in fact, produce any benefit. One piece of his "evidence" simply indicates that Political Scientists are frustrated by the fact that no one listens to their advice (a problem faced by many experts, which certainly does not indicate that their expertise is not valid or useful). Another piece of his "evidence" acknowledges that many Political Scientists are driven by the nature of the profession to focus on very narrow issues, and that we (I'm a PoliSci PhD with a tenure track job) need to do a better job of EXPLAINING to people how our research is useful (again, in no sense evidence that our research is NOT useful, simply that we don't make enough of an effort to explain to people HOW it is useful). This narrowness, however, is the nature of scientific inquiry in general. Especially as a field matures, individual research projects become more and more focused and specific, and their use lies not within the projects themselves, but in how they fit into a much larger picture. We need to do a better job of regularly summarizing and explaining the big picture to laypersons, but that doesn't mean our big picture doesn't exist or doesn't matter.

Third, much of the author's "evidence" for why Political Science research isn't useful actually makes a fairly good case for ... having more government funding rather than relying on private grant funding. You want someone outside academia doling out the funds? Guess what the NSF does! Most research-oriented universities require their faculty to apply for (and obtain) external funding. In fact, this is a major reason why people go for the quicker, numbers-heavy work that the author denounces as useless (without any grounds). Most private sources are not interested in funding long-term, in-depth, qualitative research that is expensive and resource-intensive, and which may, as is the nature of ALL research, including that on cancer, turn out to be a dead end.

Fourth, there is the criticism that some of the work - or at least the titles - of some of the funded projects just sound silly and pointless. Fine. First, maybe you don't understand what the research is about. That does not in and of itself make it pointless. Second, lots of research that seemed pointless to laymen at the time turned out to be really useful later on. Third, maybe it IS pointless. That just means we need to improve practices and procedures at the NSF, not stop funding ALL research.

As yet another example of how Political Science research is in fact relevant and ought to be used, we might consider how useful the work of Steve Walt is right now, since politicians are talking about whether to send arms to Syrian rebels: Walt's work (among others) implies that this type of military aid will NOT have the effect of buying friends and influence; it will simply introduce MORE weapons into a situation over which we have no control. It won't GIVE us control. Thus: Political Science has just given directly useful policy advice. The problem is that too many members of Congress think that the fact that THEY THINK it will work that way trumps all the research that shows that it won't.

Here are my suggestions:

1. Political Scientists should act more like those in the physical and life sciences, and write up a little summary of their research for non-scientists, every time they do anything interesting.

2.Political Scientists should re-learn the art of synthesis. We do this all the time for our literature reviews, but we should all step back every once in a while and remember why we do this. We want to know stuff. Most of us want to know stuff in order to help improve something. Let's all dedicate a little time to writing pieces for policy journals like Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy ... whatever the equivalents are for non-IR stuff ...

3. I want to set up a website where policy-makers can post questions under subject headings, and scientists can either answer those questions (if the research is already pretty solid), or use those questions to guide their own research. How many graduate students out there would go wild with joy if there were a freaking database of good dissertation questions just sitting there? I think this website should be free, but require people to join/login, and be policed such that you have to be an actual scientist to join it. Grad students would be able to join to look at questions and answers posted, but wouldn't be allowed to post answers until they were ABD. How awesome would this be? Policy-makers could search the site to see if their question has already been answered. They can post their question. Actual experts on the topic can answer it. Other experts can disagree or add nuance. Other experts can say "hey, what a great question! I should research that!"

4. This is easier said than done, but I want professors in all disciplines to start explaining to their students exactly how research - scientific and otherwise - works. Real research. Not what undergraduates call "research papers". I believe a huge part of the problem is that no one outside the world of people who have PhDs actually understands why anybody has a PhD.

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