What your NSF dollar gets you: understanding of public opinion and technological spinoffs

by Andrew Gelman on May 11, 2012 · 16 comments

in Science

Congressman Flake wants to zero out political science funding from the National Science Foundation. Flake makes two points:

1. “Three out of the four of the grants awarded by the NSF Political Science Program go to the wealthiest universities in the country. Would those who would oppose this amendment have believed that Harvard and Yale would have to close their political science departments if Federal grants are not available for this program? Of course not. These universities and the field of political science will be just fine.”

2. “$600,000 here spent trying to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do. I think we can answer that question in about 5 minutes when we vote on this amendment because I can tell you, people out there want us to quit funding projects like this.”

Flake’s first point regards a tradeoff between equity and efficiency. I get NSF grants and I don’t need the money. On the other hand, I think that I produce some useful public goods which would not exist (or would come out years later) if this funding were not coming to me. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, etc. would do just fine if we got no NSF grants, but we wouldn’t be able to do as much: that would be less education, less research, and less service. Is it a good idea to use tax money to help rich institutions do more? That’s not my call.

Flake’s second point is that it’s not useful to try to learn the connections between public opinion and policy. I don’t know why he says that. First off, policymakers are not always aware of public opinion. You might know how many of your constituents are angry enough to send you emails on some issue of the moment, but that doesn’t tell you so much about the attitudes of the silent majority. With the help of NSF funding, we’ve been using multilevel regression and poststratification to estimate public opinion at the state level to learn more about what Americans think. Second, policymakers don’t always do what citizens want them to do! We also have a lot of unelected policymakers in this country. I think it’s valuable to understand the policy areas in which policies are in accord with public opinion, and where there is discord.

Finally, NSF-funded work has spinoffs. The statistical tools that we have and are developing are publicly available and open-source. This means two things. First, anyone can use our methods. All you have to do is download R and you can get going. You don’t have to be at Harvard, Yale, or any university at all to use multilevel regression and poststratification to analyze data from the National Election Study and General Social Survey (these are all NSF-supported projects), and soon you’ll be able to fit all sorts of models in Stan, another federally-funded project. Second, everything we are developing is free, but that does not stop businesses from using our methods and software to innovate. Indeed, after one of my talks, someone came up to me and said that the company he worked for had recently had much success using multilevel regression and poststratification.

NSF funding is for basic research but it’s no surprise that publicly-available research tools developed by our leading university researchers can contribute to the economy.

P.S. Full disclosure: My research has been supported by the National Science Foundation almost continuously for over 30 years. So of course I think it’s a good thing for NSF to be supporting political science research at Harvard, Yale, etc. Some of my reasons for this view are given above.

P.P.S. Some of the commenters below express skepticism. Nobody seems to be claiming that my NSF-funded work isn’t good value for money, but commenters are arguing that I need a better argument in order to convince Congress. That’s fine. The point of this post is not to convince Congress, actually I’d feel a bit uncomfortable doing this since I am personally benefiting from these grants. I wanted to present my perspective, which happens in this case to directly address Rep. Flake’s two points. The rest of you can take it from there. If Congress judges that these projects aren’t worth the money, that’s their call. I’d just like to lay out how our work addresses the concerns laid out above.

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