More Defenses of NSF Polisci and the ACS

Ezra Klein:

I have conflicted feelings about the public money that goes to academic research — including political science — in this country. I admire and rely on the work that comes out of these disciplines. But for all the public money that goes to support them, there’s a decided lack of public-spiritedness in how they act.

The research is often locked away in pricey journals. There’s a premium placed on unnecessary convoluted rhetoric that confuses and dissuades interested outsiders. There’s almost no effort put into connecting research with the public debate — and academics who try and engage in it often risk professional and social sanction. If it were up to me, any research that took even a dollar of taxpayer funds would have to be in an open-access journal and stored in a publicly searchable repository. While much of this research deserves public support, the prevailing mores in academia don’t.

But I have no conflicted feelings about wanting scientific decisions to remain free from meddling congressmen. Perhaps there’s some process by which the NSF could do a better job judging research proposals. But I’m quite sure that process doesn’t include Jeff Flake looking over the NSF’s shoulder, telling it which subjects he likes and which he doesn’t.

I agree with all of the above, including his call for greater access to research.  See, for example, this post.

On the American Community Survey, here is a Wall Street Journal piece.

5 Responses to More Defenses of NSF Polisci and the ACS

  1. Jeff Harden May 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm #

    Another benefit of NSF funding that may be getting slightly undersold is the impact for students. Large grants to faculty often employ undergraduates, including work-study students. This has the obvious benefit of creating jobs that can be managed with a student schedule, but also gives valuable exposure to students on what a career as a political scientist looks like. That might spark a student’s interest in going to graduate school. At the very least, students considering graduate school are much more informed with that experience.

    For graduate students, the experience with research also makes a difference. But the dissertation improvement grants are a particularly beneficial resource. Even $12,000 can substantially enhance the quality of the finished product and reduce the time taken to complete it. The result: a dissertation that is both done and good, which helps get the student out of school and into a job.

    • RobC May 12, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

      It appears that the Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grants are separate from the Political Science Program and accordingly would not be affected by Flake’s defunding amendment. Perhaps others who are more familiar with the program can confirm that.

      • John Sides May 13, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

        RobC: While there is a separate solicitation for Political Science DDRIG’s, the funds come from the program. If the program is shut down, this would also result in no more DDRIG’s unless students applied to related fields such as Sociology, Economics or Law and Social Science.

  2. Joel May 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

    Although I agree that more open-access journals would be an unalloyed public good, I find self-proclaimed allies like Klein more troubling than the transparently ideological hacks like Flake. In fact, too much focus on the politicization of research detracts from the deepening crisis of eroded public support for higher education. All the authors (and nearly all of the occasional contributors) to this fine blog work in elite private universities, and therefore might not understand exactly how chilling it is to read one of the nation’s most influential columnists declare that “the mores of academia” don’t deserve public support. In addition to its more worthy journalistic functions, The Post is a house organ for the for-profit university sector, and, in that regard, Klein’s comments are on-message.

    But Klein’s argument can’t stand up to what the discipline actually prizes: rigor. The claim that papers in any of the discipline’s top journals are full of “unnecessary convoluted rhetoric” is laughable. Those papers are full of equations that are impenetrable to the untrained, but the writing is easy to follow. If he were to contend that academics aren’t very good at articulating the immediate stakes of their research, then that would be a productive conversation. But the claim that political science “places a premium” on verbosity is not a serious argument. Nor does his claim that the research isn’t relevant or connected to public debate hold water. Academics may not be on cable news every night, but most of the papers that appear in our journals are about important issues that sustain numerous public debates. Even the pariah of the field, political theory, engages topics like animal rights, freedom of religion in one of its journals most recent issues—and these are hardly fringe-y or esoteric topics. His argument can’t withstand the most basic empirical scrutiny. If these are the reasons he feels conflicted about public support for research, then he’s hardly an ally worth having.

    • anon May 14, 2012 at 9:45 am #

      I agree. Absolutely, political scientists could better articulate the worth and applicability of their research. But on the issue of readability of poli sci journal articles, I take issue. Does anyone criticize journal articles in the “hard” sciences or medicine (or even economics!) for using impenetrable arguments, equations, or jargon? No, because we all know that making valid inferences in any advanced field is complicated and requires extensive training in a specialized set of analytical tools. If doing good poli sci research didn’t require training, than why not just rely on the pundits? Perhaps I’m unfairly taking Klein’s point further than he meant it, but would he be happier if articles in the APSR had nothing more complicated that bar charts and two-by-two tables? Surely more people outside the discipline would find those articles more intellectually accessible, but for many research questions, much rigor and validity would be lost. Again, I agree that clearly explaining the implications of research is an area for improvement — and also agree that there should be more open-access for publicly-funded research (of any kind). But claiming the problem lies in the “unnecessary convoluted” articles is misguided, and somewhat plays into the argument that this research is simply glorified punditry that every non-expert ought to be able to understand at first glance. (If that’s all it was, then I’d agree that it’s not worthy of public funding.)