Political Science Serving the Public Interest

by Nolan McCarty on May 30, 2012 · 22 comments

in Blogs

On May 9, the House of Representatives adopted a provision that would preclude the National Science Foundation (NSF) from supporting research in the field of political science. We believe the important public benefits of this research and the critical role played by the NSF’s annual contribution of about $11m per year to political science research.

The mission of the NSF is “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense”—the same concerns that guide members of Congress.

Since its creation in 1965, the NSF’s political science program has made substantial contributions to all of these key concerns. In recent years, the NSF has funded research on some of our leading security issues:  What are the factors that lead to international conflict? What are the causes of terrorism?  What are the causes of civil war and state failure? Is nuclear proliferation stoppable? Do economic sanctions work?

The NSF has also supported political science research directly related to national prosperity.  What are the political factors that lead to excessive spending by state or national governments, or to economic growth, high levels of unemployment or high levels of inflation?  How do political factors contribute to trade wars, migration or citizen unrest and violence?  What are the characteristics of governments that make them more or less attractive for direct investment by firms?  What can be done to make the government more accountable and efficient?

NSF-funded political science research has also enhanced national welfare by enriching our understanding of American civic life and democracy.  Who votes and why?  How can the government better engage and respond to citizens?  How can the mechanics of our democracy be improved to better represent citizens’ wishes and desires?

In the floor debate on the defunding amendment, the political science program was criticized because a large proportion of its grants go to a small number of universities, but in fact current recipients of NSF political science funding are from 81 different institutions.   Just as importantly, the users of the findings work in hundreds of institutions—at colleges and universities, but also in government agencies, think tanks, news organizations, and citizens’ groups.  One example is the American National Election Study which has provided data on American elections to thousands of researchers, journalists and policymakers.

Another common objection to political science research is that similar research is conducted by journalists, consultants and policy analysts without public support.  This other work is important, but much of it depends on political science research to apply the principles of scientific inquiry to the subject of politics to produce the data and scientific analysis that become the raw material that others then interpret.

Journalists may ask who is going to win the next election, but a political scientist asks about the factors that drive voter choice and electoral outcomes.  A policy analyst may ask how quickly U.S. troops can be drawn down in Afghanistan, but a political scientist wants to know what factors contribute most to successful counterinsurgency strategies.  The answers to the specific questions of the journalist and analyst are ultimately based on the more comprehensive perspective that the political scientist brings.

We believe that every dollar of federal funding should be seriously scrutinized. The NSF political science program has been committed to the same standards of rigorous, evidence-based scholarship as have the rest of the foundation’s programs.  The work it has supported has made major contributions to our understanding of America’s democracy and its place in the world. The research has promoted understanding on vital issues important to Congress, including national security, economic prosperity, and the health of American civic life. We deeply appreciate the generous support provided by Congress for NSF-funded political science research in previous budgets, and we strongly encourage that support to continue.




John Coleman, Chair, Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin

Timothy Colton, Chair, Department of Government, Harvard University

Evelyne Huber, Chair, Department of Political Science, University of North Carolina

John Huber, Chair, Department of Political Science, Columbia University

Taeku Lee, Chair, Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley

Jeffrey Lewis, Chair, Department of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles

Nolan McCarty, Chair, Department of Politics, Princeton University

Josiah Ober, Chair, Department of Political Science, Stanford University

Karen Remmer, Chair, Department of Political Science, Duke University

Charles Shipan, Chair, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan

Susan Stokes, Chair, Department of Political Science, Yale University



Tracy Lightcap May 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Did anyone else notice that every one of the signers are from universities with oodles of money already? That was one of Rep. Flake’s (sic) major criticisms of the program: that the NSF sends the bulk of the cash to institutions that already have enough money. Wouldn’t it be better to get some of the people who have gotten NSF grants at smaller schools mixed in with these worthies?

Take me, for instance. I teach at an obscure liberal arts college in southwest Georgia. Back in 1994, I got a grant from the NSF to set up a data analysis laboratory for the social sciences at our school. Not much of a grant, admittedly; only $36,000. But that was $36,000 that our college would never have seen otherwise (try to get a donor interested in education for research methods). I equipped an entire computer lab, both machines and applications, with it. And once the camel’s nose was under the tent, maintaining that lab and expanding its use became a part of the college’s IT budget. In short, no NSF, no adequate training in social science research methods for almost a generation of our students. It’s the seed money as much as the big continuing projects, iow.

Justin H. Gross May 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm


Fair enough, but how would ending all funding for political science help you? And is political science as a discipline especially egregious in this regard? The signers are all from programs with top-15 ranked graduate programs; that these also are either private institutions with large endowments or flagship public universities fits the same pattern you might expect to find for any field.

It seems that pushing for some money to be set aside for small grants to liberal arts and other undergrad-focused schools (or effective teaching of social science to undergrads) would be a more reasonable proposal if this were really the relevant issue at hand. A principal reason that research institutions rely heavily on grant money, even in a field not relying on expensive equipment, is the need to fund graduate students. At least at most public universities (five of which are listed among the ten above), it is typically like pulling teeth to get any state funds put towards graduate studies.

Still, it is true that much political science research does not require large grants. Thus, unlike researchers in psychology, public health & medicine, etc., political science faculty even at top-ranked institutions tend not to rely excessively upon grants. This is fortunate, since relatively small amounts of money are set aside by the NSF for political science already, and very large grants are generally reserved for large-scale surveys or interdisciplinary work with special technology or personnel requirements.

At any rate, to the extent that there is legitimate concern about inequities in funding across universities, there are likely better ways to address these than by just singling out one small field for elimination. But something tells me that Flake and the amendment’s other supporters were not acting out of concern over inadequate spreading of wealth.

Ted M May 30, 2012 at 5:43 pm

I think Tracy’s (mostly) pointing out an optics issue here . Namely, it doesn’t really matter if Representative Flake’s issue with political science is the inequality – sending him a letter signed by the best-funded departments in the field is likely to play right into the message he’s been spinning. Thus, it might make sense to have some smaller schools sprinkled in – such as Tracy’s.

Tracy Lightcap May 31, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Yes, that’s it, exactly. I wasn’t pushing for me to be included among the signees. What I was trying to get across is:
a. This letter is really in the opponents wheelhouse, no matter how sensible its content, and
b. There’s more to NSF grants then the big continuing surveys and they have more impact and in different ways then members of Congress might think.

I sure that much better examples of small grants that had disproportionate impact could be found then my own. But I think the best way to change this business around is to try to make the Senators aware of the full range of effects on research and education from the NSF program.

J. Britt Holbrook May 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm

I believe such responses to ‘common criticisms’, general statements about the value of political science, and paeans to Congress will be ineffective responses to a very real threat — no matter who signs them.

What’s needed is a real change in business as usual. There’s a post on today’s LSE Impact blog that makes this point: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2012/05/30/insider-view-relevance-political-scientists-goverment/. I also argue for a change here: http://cas-csid.cas.unt.edu/?p=3607.

John Sides May 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Britt: The letter notes lots of specific questions that funded political science research has addressed. It mentions only one individual grant (to the ANES), but I don’t thinks it’s overly general in its treatment of the value of political science.

PBR May 31, 2012 at 12:12 am

Very nice letter! Hopefully Congress listens.

Also — I assume this has been corrected by now, but if not, I feel obliged to mention that I’ve re-read the second sentence a few times now, and I think it’s missing the word “in” after the word “believe.”

ezra abrams May 31, 2012 at 8:56 am

Why did you not take 5 seconds to provide a link to the vote ?
If you were undergrads, I would deduct 1/2 letter grade for this failure, even in a sort of formal letter like this
maybe the reps have a point, this is the quality of your science

John Sides May 31, 2012 at 9:25 am

Ezra: I guess you’re not a regular reader of this blog, but quick use of the blog’s search function will turn up many, many posts on this subject, with links aplenty. Just try searching for “National Science Foundation.”

ezra abrams May 31, 2012 at 9:18 pm

so the next time a student of yours says something, without a ref or citation, its ok for the student to say, hey, its a well known fact, just google it or search the blog..
yeah, right.man up and admit error

John Sides May 31, 2012 at 10:26 pm

I also like my students to do a little research when not every piece of information is conveniently at their fingertips. But since you seem to need a helping hand: http://themonkeycage.org/?s=national+science+foundation

Jim May 31, 2012 at 9:16 am

This is a nice letter, but unfortunately Members of Congress, and their staff, simply will not care. They will not read this letter. Face to face interaction, and developing relationships on Capitol Hill, is what builds support; not sending one letter or email to a staffer that will receive hundreds of similar letters that day. In fact, unless the recipient works for one of the 11 members of Congress and 16 senators representing of these institutions, they will unlikely even see the letter.

John Sides May 31, 2012 at 9:23 am

Jim: Who says this letter is the only strategy that political scientists or the American Political Science Association is currently pursuing?

Jim May 31, 2012 at 9:35 am

No one. But from my vantage point on the Hill, I haven’t seen any evidence they are doing what really would have an impact.

John Sides May 31, 2012 at 10:01 am

Fair enough. I don’t have the benefit of your vantage point. And I agree that what you propose must be integral to APSA’s strategy.

anon May 31, 2012 at 11:01 am

Erm, hang on. Aren’t we supposed to be experts at this?

marija May 31, 2012 at 11:28 am

I agree with Tracy and Ted M. I immediately thought, “why not get the chairs of a variety of types of departments to sign on?” Surely, APSA could easily send out an email to all chairs asking them if they would sign it. I am sure my chair would.

Also, if I recall correctly, I thought the view of this blog was that a key argument is that other scientists should judge research/funding opportunities and not members of Congress. I didn’t see that in the letter or was it decided that would just piss them off?….If so let me know before I write my Senators. And, thanks for doing this.

Lynn Vavreck May 31, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Please do not mistake large universities with places that have “oodles of money.” The University of California faces serious financial challenges and is not at all in the same set as many private universities and colleges. Most social scientists in the UCs fund their own research and travel to conferences using their salaries. There are no “donors” out there eager to hand over millions of dollars to study voting, representation, or the health of democracy. I am sure the letter writers above would welcome chairs of ALL political science departments who want to sign on to this letter — research university or otherwise. We all benefit from the science and graduate training done through funding by the National Science Foundation. Whether we hire PhDs trained in programs where this work is being supported or benefit more directly, our departments and intellectual environments are strengthened by this support. Please don’t think big means rich and small means struggling — the defunding of research about politics affects all political scientists. And to suffer the blow at the hands of political actors is among the “most unkindest cuts of all.”

Tracy Lightcap June 1, 2012 at 1:01 pm

I know you are right about funding for research in some public universities, but do two things for me:
a. Look at the departments listed as signatories, and
b. Try to think of a single member of Congress who won’t think that they are awash in cash or that they could “readjust their spending” to cover the defunding of the political science program.

As was said above, I’m concerned about the “optics” of this issue, not the actual situation. I’m also at a complete loss to see how anyone could have interpreted my comment as saying anything but that “… the defunding of research about politics affects all political scientists”. I never would have made the comment in the first place if I wasn’t concerned with the effects of deep-sixing the program on the discipline. However, imho, portraying this whole business as a matter of upholding pure research won’t sell anywhere near as well as unless it is combined with pointing out the way NSF programs have far reaching effects on post-secondary education at all levels. Which, I reiterate, is all I was trying to encourage.

Amplification Project- Nicole June 5, 2012 at 9:25 am

Even large universities with plenty of funding do not place a high priority on political science research. I just left a large public institution that prioritizes the bio-sciences, and the social sciences see little to no funding from the institution. Instead, the social science departments depend on government sources to fund their important, but often undervalued, work. To say that journalists or think tanks will fill the void of NSF funding is not only wrong, I would say it is a dangerous assumption for civic society. We need MORE research, now more than ever, to understand our country’s political conscience and shed light on some deeply troubling underlying issues that have festered for too long (I am thinking mainly of how we might use political science research to better understand deeply ingrained racial and socioeconomic injustices). One thing I think the political science field must do to bolster its position is make sure the research it produces becomes widely accessible to average citizens, so that our society can become better educated and more thoughtful on a broad scale. The research must not be limited to peer-reviewed journals, but must be translated and put before the general public so they too can understand the benefits of the research and have a better public discourse.

Straik June 6, 2012 at 5:09 pm

I strongly believe research in political science ultimately benefits the public good. The issue here, of course, is government funding for political science research. Does that clearly benefits the public good? Prima facie it would seem that getting government funding would decrease the latitude for open questioning. One must toe the official line, since it wouldn’t make sense to bite the hands that feed you. Political Science funding would be a cheap way for government to co-opt the intellectual class who would spend their clamoring for funding rather than developing trenchant critiques of the current political order.

Asking rigorous questions in an environment of free inquiry is of the essence of political science. The authors of this letter would seem to agree. For instance:

“In recent years, the NSF has funded research on some of our leading security issues … [and] research directly related to national prosperity.” And then it lists a lot of really important questions.

“NSF-funded political science research has also enhanced national welfare by enriching our understanding of American civic life and democracy.” And again it lists more questions.

As far as answers to those questions, I’m assuming there are some. But the letter does not point to any.

The main thing the research has produced, according to this letter, is data. Data “that become the raw material that others then interpret.”

So is Political Science about asking rigorous questions, or just doing jobs of data analysis that could be done in theory by bureaucrats? Are political scientists just basically government bureaucrats who just aren’t on the official payroll?

Clearly the best answer to the charge that poli sci NSF funding should be cut is to just produce the awesome results of the studies, which answer vital questions. Can anyone point to anything like this? Honestly I was disappointed to click this link and read a litany of interesting questions, but no answers to those questions.

Matthew Holden. Jr. June 8, 2012 at 5:45 am

Dear Colleagues: I suggest that each of us be very focused. The purpose is to communicate the most honest and most practical messages we can to people who can be helpful.
(1) There are some members of the House and the Senate who understand support us already. Express thanks and reinforcement. There are some who have said nothing. Express the best that we know to them. Do not take anybody for granted. If you have to address the antagonists do so with respect. You never kniow when you will have the need or the chance to talk to someone face to face.
(2) Make your case again and again to every journalist you can.
(3) When possible, get people in physics, chemistry, engineering, etc. to join with you. Their voice will count even more than ours.
(4) Be timely so far as possible. But what goes around comes around. We have faced this before and will face it again.
I say this thanks to Tracy and with regards to all.

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