My NSF Grant

by John Sides on May 10, 2012 · 26 comments

in Political Science News

Now that the House has voted to defund the political science program of the National Science Foundation, I wanted to say something about my own grant, which I officially received last month and which totals $76,160, or about 0.00002% of the FY 2012 federal budget.  Although I do not know whether those who voted to defund this program have a specific beef with political science or, like Congressman Flake, simply want to cut government spending on scientific research.  But back when Senator Tom Coburn wanted to defund political science, he raised specific objections to funding the academic study of politics as well as the social sciences generally:

Rather than ramping up the amount spent on political science and other social and behavioral research, NSF’s mission should be redirected towards truly transformative sciences with practical uses outside of academic circles and clear benefits to mankind and the world.

In my initial responses to that argument—some cheeky, some serious—I tried to make the case that political science research has “clear benefits.”  This may be, for example, why the Department of Defense has funded social science research in an effort to promote national security.  (See Jacob Shapiro and Jay Ulfelder on this.)  This may also be why Senator Coburn eventually found it useful to cite NSF-funded political science research in his defense of the Government Accountability Office.

Does the research that my grant will fund have such benefits?  I believe it does.  The subject of my grant, most of which will fund a small survey, is how people’s attitudes toward social groups come to be associated with their attitudes toward public policies.  Why should we care about this?  People’s attitudes toward social groups are frequently characterized by stereotypes and other misperceptions—Southerners are dumb, blacks are lazy, etc.  And sometimes their attitudes toward public policies reflect their stereotypes of the groups who might benefit from those policies.  Put simply, some people favor or oppose policies at least partly because they like or dislike the groups who might benefit.

This, I think, is a potentially problematic basis for public opinion.  We would like opinions about public policy to center on considerations of the objective benefits and costs of policies, or on broader values about the role of government in economic, political, and social life.  But when opinions about public policy are based at least in part on stereotypes of social groups, then it is difficult to characterize those opinions as well-informed or even accurate.  Ideally, people would not oppose immigration because they think Latinos are lazy.  Ideally, they would not support taxes on the wealthy because they think all rich people are greedy.

The purpose of my project is to figure out what makes these kinds of stereotypes more potent predictors of attitudes.  Is it just inherent in the nature of certain issues?  Or does political debate need to implicate a particular group directly?  And does it matter who the publicly visible sponsor of the policy is?  If we can answer these questions, we will know something about how to make stereotypes less potent forces in debates over public policy.

Of course, I don’t pretend that my project is going to be “transformative,” to use Coburn’s term above.  Almost no research meets that standard.  Science proceeds in smaller steps.  So although I wouldn’t expect Senator Coburn or Congressman Flake or even every reader of this blog to agree with me, I do think my project has enough value to deserve NSF funding.

We will be highlighting other NSF-funded political science research over the next several days.

{ 26 comments }

Jim May 10, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Excellent post, John. I believe this is the kind of information APSA and political scientists in general should be making apparent in regards to NSF grants to try to combat the narrative that funding our research is a waste of money.

Sam May 10, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Think you might be off by a factor of 1,000 on the percentage in your first sentence ($76,000 = 0.000002% of $3.8 trillion). Not that 0.002% of the budget wouldn’t be nice to have…

John Sides May 10, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Fixed! I forgot a few zeroes in my hurry to post this.

idiot May 10, 2012 at 1:06 pm

“Ideally, they would not oppose taxes on the wealthy because they think all rich people are greedy.”

You mean ‘support taxes on the wealthy’? Granted, that “typoed” statement may stilll have meaning anyway due to ‘self-interest’ being considered a key part of economics and how said ‘self-interest’ ends up benefiting everyone through the mechanics of the market. It’s just that…well…this interpretation doesn’t make sense in context.

John Sides May 10, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Fixed!

Roger May 10, 2012 at 1:43 pm

I don’t think that you are helping your case. You are telling Congressmen that they need to pay you $76k to find out that “some people favor or oppose policies at least partly because they like or dislike the groups who might benefit.” Let us know how that works out.

John Sides May 10, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Roger: That’s not quite right, or even very fair. What we know from previous studies is that attitudes toward groups *can* predict attitudes toward public policies, but there is no clear consensus on *when* and *why* that happens. That’s the focus of my project.

JoJo May 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm

I think Roger’s right and is being fair enough. You’re missing his point. The clarification that you’re project is about “What we know from previous studies is that attitudes toward groups *can* predict attitudes toward public policies, but there is no clear consensus on *when* and *why* that happens” doesn’t help.

It’s easy to understand why something like national security research is important enough to require public funding, but it’s difficult to find value in your NSF project. This isn’t a personal attack on your chosen research interests. The question Congressman and taxpayers want to know is “what are we paying for?”

Presented with your NSF project, I’d bet most taxpayers would say “you need 76K to do what!?” Why shouldn’t this money go towards hard STEM projects that make the world a better place? For example, I could tell someone exactly how the 76k would be better spent in BioE research and what the tangible benefits of our research are.

John Sides May 10, 2012 at 4:11 pm

JoJo: I think understanding the role of stereotypes in public opinion and public policy is pretty important. Stereotypes have done a significant amount of damage to our political and social life, and if we can understand what makes people rely on those stereotypes, then we can begin to prevent further damage. Why wouldn’t that make the world a better place? I don’t understand this perception that only STEM projects can do that.

RobC May 10, 2012 at 2:45 pm

It’s a great idea for you to explain the types of political science projects the NSF has been funding. That’s a much more effective rebuttal than the argument that political science research is entitled to a share of NSF funding as a matter of entitlement. Ideally you’ll be able to point to the positive contributions of concluded studies that were funded by the NSF.

It would also be helpful, I think, to put the $11 million of NSF political science annual grants in some context. What are the sources of political science research funding (university, foundation, NSF, other governmental grants, etc.), and in what amounts? Have the amounts of political science NSF funding grown over recent years or stayed level?

Relating the amount of your grant to the total federal budget is perhaps a bit off the mark. A more apt comparison would be to the NSF political science budget, of which your grant appears to be approximately 0.7%. To put the NSF political science budget in context, it might be useful to point out that the amount of federal money lost on Solyndra would have funded the NSF political science program for fifty years at the current level.

Draehner May 10, 2012 at 3:04 pm

So some academics feeding at the taxpayer-funded NSF trough … are really annoyed that their free ride might end.

The entire NSF should be abolished.

It, of course, squanders Billion$ on useless “research”… while the Federal Government is financially bankrupt.

The NSF is a shameful product of New Deal socialism and the WW II Military-Industrial Complex. It is indefensible under the U.S. Constitution or any objective fiscal analysis.

Its GodFather — Senator Harley Kilgore… expressly designed the NSF concept as socialized central planning & control of basic/applied scientific research — and forcefully aimed to marginalize free-market scientific research in private business & universities.

Those on the NSF dole love the money… and want that flow forever. They can see no downside whatsoever to such open spigots or political corruption.

Dan Nexon May 10, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I’d think you’d do more to combat “New Deal socialism” by eliminating both its core programs (from Social Security to the FDIC) and getting rid of its descendants, such as Medicare and Medicaid. If you’re willing to axe the entire welfare state, then we can tackle claims that the NSF destroys free-market research and development. They won’t likely stand up to scrutiny, even if we allow you some fun with genetic fallacies, but at least the discussion will be meaningful.

RobW May 10, 2012 at 10:45 pm

I don’t think one needs to be prepared to axe the entire welfare state in order to have a ‘meaningful’ conversation about the benefits of reducing state spending in certain areas.

I am not trying to put words in your mouth here but there is merit to the point expressed elsewhere that most of what’s going on is one special interest group up in arms that they stand to lose their subsidy.

I am perfectly willing to have a rational discussion about the budget though I hope you’d agree that most “reasonable” analysis of the issue suggests the need for both tax increases and spending cuts. Someone is going to have to lose else the whole house of cards will fall.

Thomas Leeper May 10, 2012 at 4:01 pm

I think the frame here is all wrong. The politicization of political science funding is representative of a broader attack on science as a publicly beneficial enterprise. It should be up to the NSF to decide how it spends its money, through its well-structured, peer-reviewed, merit-based grant-making processes. If Congress wants to reduce funding for NSF, that is their choice, but deciding what qualifies as “science” or what qualifies as an effective use of those funds should be determined by scientists. Both social science and STEM research funded by NSF can seem somewhat removed from immediate application, and that’s fine because the NSF mission is necessarily broad (“to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…”).

J May 10, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Why doesn’t Rep. Dan Lapinski (D-IL), not say anything. He could be a good champion. Has written books on legislative politics, well respected expert on franking privileges.

http://www.lipinski.house.gov/

John Sides May 10, 2012 at 6:41 pm

I believe he and David Price, also a polisci Ph.D., wrote letters to their colleagues opposing the amendment.

Jeff Johnson May 10, 2012 at 7:06 pm

I’ve been thinking about exactly this question for years. And if we want democracy, answering it is pretty damn important. On the other hand, if we don’t care about that…

Henry May 10, 2012 at 7:06 pm

A litmus test: has any political science research anywhere ever been “transformative” in the sense that it has produced clear benefits to people who don’t study political science?

Unless you can at the very least make that case, I don’t see how you could convince anyone not interested in political science to support you.

John Sides May 10, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Sure, that’s not hard. Lots of political science research studies how to reduce ethnic conflict. Its findings have benefits for people who don’t study political science — namely, those who are the victims or potential victims of ethnic violence. Or another example: the work on forecasting state failure (e.g. this piece). Being able to forecast state failure with even moderate accuracy increases our ability to prevent it and the suffering it typically creates.

Rob May 10, 2012 at 10:34 pm

I think that’s the wrong metric to have. Perhaps it’s better to ask the question of whether any social science research can ever be truly transformative. A useful question to ask yourself is this: cite one piece of research that you’ve come across that’s made you completely abandon your prior beliefs and admit you were wrong. Can you think of a single example? Probably not. Nevertheless, it does not mean that such research isn’t socially useful.

Thom May 11, 2012 at 4:33 am

On that basis you wouldn’t fund any science research.

Even truly transformative science can’t be identified with a single piece of research. It takes hundreds or thousands of pieces of research for that to hold. Also many transformative pieces of research in health and medicine require political will to be transformative. For instance, cholera was eradicated by improvements in publication brought about by ambitious city politicians like Joseph Chamberlain in the UK.

Good science also seems to flourish in a democracy – so understanding and improving the democratic process seems reasonable to me.

Others? May 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) is a political scientist, too. Are there others besides him, Lapinski, and Price?

Peter May 10, 2012 at 9:34 pm

In many ways, I think this vote in the House was a good reminder to social scientists that the work they do should be valuable to taxpayers if they are going to be using taxpayer money. For the most part, political science really isn’t especially relevant to individuals outside of the discipline, or at least most political scientists don’t attempt to make their work digestable or comprehensible to people outside of their narrow fields. I think this blog does a good job of trying to speak to a wider audience, but I wouldn’t be so dismissive of the underlying concern behind the House rejection of social science NSF funding. Money in the country is tight. There are programs that have to be cut. Nobody wants their program to be the one cut. But being a bit more humble would be useful here—with so many taxpayers barely making enough to provide basic needs for their families, is it reasonable to say funding political science research is a fair use of their very limited pool of funds? In principle, I think public funding of research is important (as long as the result of that funding is publically available to the taxpayers themselves). But I think the field of political science has drifted into the esoteric. Political scientists are not *entitled* to taxpayer money. Show that you deserve it, have your field incentivize policy-relevant research, and *earn* the privilege of funding. This would mean asking very different sorts of questions, I’d think.

John Sides May 10, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Peter: I’m not sure if you’re responding to my post or other commenters or what, but I certainly am not “dismissive” of the concern nor do I believe that I am or political science is simply “entitled” to taxpayer money. If I thought that, I wouldn’t have written the post trying to defend my own grant. I wouldn’t even disagree that political science can do a better job demonstrating its relevance, which may mean asking some different questions.

But if you believe that “there are programs that have to be cut,” then perhaps you should make the case that the budget for the entire NSF should be cut. When Flake proposed an amendment that did that (to the tune of $1 billion), however, it failed. So what purpose is then served by eliminating the $11 million budgeted to the NSF political science program? It will obviously have miniscule fiscal benefits. And it won’t help needy families either. But it will hurt research that benefits our understanding of elections, democracy, war, and other important topics. See Erica Chenoweth and Jason Lyall’s post for relevant examples.

Thomas Leeper May 11, 2012 at 8:43 am

Isn’t it the case that the amendment didn’t actually have fiscal impact? The way Flake described it, it simply prevented appropriated NSF funds from being spent on political science. That, of course, also indicates a contradiction in the argument – a non-fiscal policy change defended on fiscal grounds.

Jim May 11, 2012 at 9:36 am

Yes, the way the amendment is written it would not reduce NSF spending. It would simply not allow them to spend money in the political science division.

Note: The way the amendment is written also does not necessarily bad political scientists from receiving NSF funding. The language of the amendment…

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation”

…literally just bars NSF funds from being used in the Political Science Program. If political scientists can get funding from other programs they are entitled to it. Now, this certainly makes it harder for political scientists and would overwhelmingly reduce the money going to political science research, but it creates a workaround both for political scientists and the NSF. The NSF, for example, could justify funding the ANES in one of the other SES divisions: http://www.nsf.gov/div/index.jsp?org=SES

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