Coburn vs. the Political Scientists
Friday, October 23, 2009
It would be an enormous mistake to defund political science research.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has put forward an amendment that would stop the National Science Foundation from funding political science research. Politico quotes Coburn:
"At a time when America faces a $12 trillion debt and few Americans have much confidence or esteem for politicians or the government, Congress has an obligation to ensure that millions of taxpayer dollars intended for scientific research are not being wasted on politics," Coburn said in a statement e-mailed to Politico. "Political science would be better left to pundits and voters themselves and federal research dollars would be best left to scientists."
Of course, political scientists strongly disagree. Their challenge is that they can come off as just another interest group, begging for a refill of the feed trough. So I’ll weigh in as a card-carrying economist: it would be an enormous mistake to defund political science research. We economists enjoy sneering at political scientists, of course. You know, the standard stuff of rivalries everywhere: “Our t-statistics are bigger than your t-statistics!” The fact is, though, that the line between economics and political science can be somewhat blurry.
Some commenters in the blogosphere have equated Coburn’s attacks with Republican anti-scientific ‘know-nothing-ism.’ This is wrong on two counts.
Dan Drezner notes that one of this year’s recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, is a distinguished political scientist. Drezner himself illustrates the blurring of lines. He started out as a graduate student in economics, then switched over to flourish in the international relations subfield of political science, doing relevant and interesting work for both disciplines.
Senator Coburn mocks several political science studies, with subjects like: “Why do political candidates make vague statements, and what are the consequences?” (At least Coburn is specific). Some commenters in the blogosphere have equated Coburn’s attacks with Republican anti-scientific “know-nothing-ism.” This is wrong on two counts.
First, Senator Coburn is following a trail blazed long ago by a Democrat. As a youth in Wisconsin, I was represented in the Senate by the late William Proxmire, with his regular Golden Fleece Awards. Senator Proxmire targeted researchers well beyond political science. These experts achieved their prominence through a deep understanding of their research areas, not through any particular media savvy. All it took was an unfortunate paper title and they could find their work held up to ridicule. Of course, there is good research and bad research. There are studies that eminently deserve ridicule, and I’ve enjoyed heaping such ridicule at various times past. But the title page generally poorly predicts a study’s value. Ideally, we would get experts to review studies carefully and determine whether they warrant public funds (which is what the NSF does).
The second problem with dismissing Senator Coburn’s attack as anti-intellectual is that it presumes he wants to defund all scholarly inquiry. In fact, he’s arguing that the money devoted to political science “could have been directed towards the study of biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. These are real fields of science in which new discoveries can yield real improvements in the lives of everyone.”
In any research, there is uncertainty about where discoveries will lead. For federal funding, there is the additional question of whether the research would have been funded anyway.
This raises a fairly subtle question: what is the best use of federal research funds? The subtle part comes in assessing the benefits. In any research, there is uncertainty about where discoveries will lead. For federal funding, there is the additional question of whether the research would have been funded anyway. Much applied research that leads to “real improvements” is undertaken by the private sector. The pharmaceutical industry spends billions of dollars developing new drugs. The niche that’s open to the government is supporting basic science, the returns on which may be hard to foresee or for a private research enterprise to capture.
That said, it is an odd time to deride the value of political science. Many of this country’s most pressing security concerns come from weak or failed states. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, we are spending billions of dollars in aid and defense funds trying to get those polities to function better. Economic studies of aid and development have pointed to the central role of political governance in determining the likelihood of success. If anything, it seems like we need good political science research now more than ever.
Philip I. Levy is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
FURTHER READING: Levy argues in “Public Outrage as a Systemic Risk” that without bankruptcy, it is hard to avoid rewarding failure. In “Banking on Delusion,” he discusses the odds of U.S. taxpayers ever getting their money back from GM. In “Trade: The Unsung Hero,” the author uses GDP statistics to show the vital role trade has played in countering the nation’s economic ill health.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.