Political Scientist Walter Stone Responds to Eric Cantor’s Criticism of His Research

by John Sides on February 15, 2013 · 29 comments

in Academia,Political science

In today’s New York Times, Eric Cantor responds to Paul Krugman by saying in part:

The National Science Foundation finances important research helping find cures for devastating diseases. But the foundation has only enough funds to support 15 percent of the applications it receives for research grants in the biological sciences. Yet we spend nearly $250 million annually on research in the social, behavioral, economic and political arena, such as a recent $266,821 grant to figure out why voters chose the candidates they did in the 2010 election. This money could fund another 1,000 grants in life sciences!

We are pleased to welcome a guest-post by the recipient of the grant to which Cantor refers.  He is Walter J. Stone, Professor of Political Science and director of the UC Davis Congressional Elections Study.  The 2010 phase of the study, funded by NSF, is entitled “Political Context and Citizen Response in the 2010 Elections” (SES-0852387).  For more, see here.  He writes:

As the principal investigator of a political science project referenced in a letter to the New York Times today by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor attacking social science funding at NSF, I feel the need to reply.  Mr. Cantor’s description of the study is accurate: “…a recent $266,821 grant to figure out why voters chose the candidates they did in the 2010 election.”  The next sentence may suggest to some that, rather than understanding voting choice in 2010, the money could have better spent elsewhere:  “This money could fund another 1,000 grants in life sciences!”  I assume Mr. Cantor is referring to the “250 million annually on research in the social, behavioral, economic and political arena….” rather than the relatively small amount allocated to support my project.

I do not dispute Mr. Cantor’s obligation as a member of Congress to decide how federal dollars are spent, nor do I think it illegitimate to argue that scarce federal research funding would be better spent on the medical and biological sciences, rather than the social sciences.  I do believe, as other Monkey Cage authors have suggested, that devoting NSF funding to the social sciences is worthwhile, given the importance of advancing our understanding of questions these disciplines address.  As for political science, which Mr. Cantor has mentioned more than once in recent statements criticizing social science funding by NSF, I would remind him that the program receives less than 5 percent of the entire social and behavioral science budget, hardly enough to fund an additional handful of studies in medicine or biology.

As for my project, we are using new methods to measure the policy positions and quality of candidates running in House elections to study how voters responded to the choices on offer in the 2010 elections.   Mr. Cantor might be interested to learn that our findings challenge a fair amount of the conventional wisdom about congressional elections by showing that they work pretty well.  Scholars and other critics, we show, have been too quick to conclude that voters are misled by the power of incumbency, money, and even party.  We find that voters tend to choose candidates on the basis of policy agreement and the competence and personal integrity of the candidates running in their districts, much as traditional defenders of democracy would hope.

As a result, winning candidates for the House (including most incumbents) are closer to district preferences and more qualified than losing candidates.   Moreover, the Republican candidates in 2010 (many of whom affiliated with the Tea Party) who wrested their districts away from the Democrats, restoring Mr. Cantor and the Republicans to the majority in the House, were actually closer to their district preferences than the Democrats they defeated.  This was true despite the fact that many of the Republican winners were strongly conservative in their views, while the Democrats they defeated were relatively moderate.  The reason was due to the conservative views of the districts that swung to the Republican Party in 2010.

Are these and other results we are reporting worth the $267,000 support NSF granted the project?  I have no idea.  Could the money have created more value for the nation if it had been devoted to medical or biological research?  Possibly.  I am confident, however, that some small investment in understanding citizen behavior in the world’s oldest democracy is worthwhile.  If we find that voters act reasonably in selecting candidates for seats in the “people’s House”—that they are not dominated by money and other distorting influences—perhaps we will learn to trust that deliberations in Congress, including over how best to spend federal research dollars, will ultimately reflect the public interest.

{ 29 comments }

Non-Ivy League Grad Student February 15, 2013 at 3:54 pm

“Are these and other results we are reporting worth the $267,000 support NSF granted the project? I have no idea. Could the money have created more value for the nation if it had been devoted to medical or biological research? Possibly. ”

I thought we political scientists were supposed to know something about the practice of politics. Quotes likes this are why we are at serious risk of losing our funding. No professional lobbyist would EVER make these kinds of concessions. If I were in the APSA executive office, I would be furious after having read this response.

R1 Researcher February 16, 2013 at 1:35 pm

But it’s the candid truth. We all believe social science research is important, but we can’t say it’s any more important than life science research.

Foreign reader February 16, 2013 at 6:36 pm

A lot of life science research is no more useful than the history of philosophy. Go and ask a white coat. Your inferiority complex is candid, but it is not a valid depiction of how (the life) science works.

Former Non-Ivy League Grad Student February 15, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Knowing Walt Stone personally, I think his response reflects the honesty and candor about which he addressed the topic. We’re not lobbyists we’re seekers of truth within democratic institutions. Having attended a top PhD program in Political Science, I can say that Walt gave Cantor’s arguments a fair shake. Those of us who are honest know that resources have been allocated to projects of limited value in the past (though being familiar with Walt’s research, I disagree that this applies to his studies).

You don’t need funding to do good political science research. It helps, but in a time when student and academic programs are being gutted, you can put your education to good use and be resourceful in garnering the resources to collect your data.

Jim February 15, 2013 at 5:54 pm

The first commenter has it right. If political science wants to keeps its NSF funding the profession, through the APSA, needs act like a real trade group and aggressively lobby on behalf of itself. Walter Stone’s comments are refreshingly candid, but groups, interests, and programs keep their funding in Congress through aggressive, one-sided, pitch-black blinders on lobbying of potential allies in Congress. As great as candor is, that’s not how things get done in the American policy process. At this point the NSF is fighting harder to keep its social science division funding than social scientists are.

Kindred Winecoff February 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm

If we lobby like an interest group, then it’s nearly impossible to simultaneously claim that our work is in the public interest rather than our narrow interest. At that point we admit we’re rent-seekers. This is why Sides and others really would prefer not to do that.

brian February 15, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Sure, lobby like an interest group. How many votes can we deliver in a member’s constituency? How many dollars can we raise for a member’s PAC? What exactly do we have to offer to a member to induce his or her support on the floor of the House or in committee?

Kindred Winecoff February 15, 2013 at 8:04 pm

(presumably why… I obviously can’t read their minds.)

xpostfactoid February 15, 2013 at 8:36 pm

You might have argued that your findings have policy implications – e.g., that we needn’t worry as much as many of us do about money in politics. More broadly, that understanding political dynamics can help us make our institutions work better.

The finding that the winning candidates were better aligned with the political views of candidates in their district than the losing candidates sounds at least potentially circular. I trust that the actual research deals with that possibility.

ron lewis February 15, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Unfortunately, Professor Stone proves the conventional wisdom about useless academic funding. Rather than a inquiry into whether “voters are misled by the power of incumbency, money, and even party,” which only serves to inform pols how to better manipulate us, how about an inquiry into why voters are misled, election after election by blatant lies? Why do voters believe the obviously power-mad ego-maniac politicians actually have the moral values they express, after having been proven false so many times? How can voters hold views that logically conflict, such as lower taxes and more public spending, or views that conflict with basic common sense, such as spending more than we make is OK?

All Professor Stone’s study does is prove the power of lies. I think we already knew that.

We have too many professors. Like their useless studies, academia is a drain on public resources. Why must millions of college students learn American History 101 from tens of thousands of college professors, most of whom are mediocre at best, when they could attend multiple webcasts of the same lectures from the single best professor to ever teach the subject and learn so much more?

John Sides February 15, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Ron: You can take heart that there are polisci professors out there who, instead of teaching history, are studying the effects of misinformation on voters and how it can be combated. Here are a couple:

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/
http://web.mit.edu/berinsky/www/files/rumor.pdf

There have been and are studies of public attitudes toward fiscal policy, including this question of whether voters contradict themselves. I cited a few here:

http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2010/06/23/do_americans_really_want_to_cu/

In general, the response to “Why are professors studying X when they should be studying Y?” is “They’re studying Y too.”

ron lewis February 23, 2013 at 11:09 am

I have not doubt, John, that they’re studying X, Y, Z, and ABC as well. But do we really need them to? Especially at the cost to taxpayers and students? Public schools, and especially colleges, have a horrendous ROI for taxpayers and tuition payers. Their ROI to the Democratic party is great between the union dues that are kicked back and the thousands of useless, redundant, or irrelevant jobs created for their supporters, but the real, non-partisan benefits to society produced by public education could be had for a fraction of the cost if the politicians were not corrupt.

One only has to look at how much the countries that are kicking our academic a$$es pay for education to know we’re getting ripped off.

John Sides February 23, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Ron: You wrote, “how about an inquiry into why voters are misled, election after election by blatant lies?” And when I pointed out that such an “inquiry” was in fact underway, you suddenly have “no doubt” that such topics are being studied and instead question whether we need to study them at all (“But do we really need them to?”). I guess all I can ask is that you make up your mind.

LFC February 23, 2013 at 10:55 pm

How can voters hold views that logically conflict, such as lower taxes and more public spending, or views that conflict with basic common sense, such as spending more than we make is OK?

I assume the second part of this is supposed to refer to deficit spending — as in the govt should not spend more than it takes in. A lot of people think that the govt is like a family and shd operate on the principles of household budgeting, never spending more than it takes in. Certain politicians repeat this bromide all the time. It happens to be WRONG. There are times when deficit spending is not only appropriate but vital. Yes, running huge deficits forever is not good or sustainable . But saying the govt shd *never* spend more than it takes in is NOT “common sense.” It is, to be blunt, ignorance.

And if you think there is *never* any difference betw watching a professor on a screen and actually being in the same room with one, you’re out of your mind.

John Sides February 15, 2013 at 8:51 pm

As you can see from my comments in the post linked above, I think it’s a very difficult question to measure the benefits of almost any scientific research project — both in comparison to the amount of federal funding it has received or in comparison to some other research project (imagined or real). So I think Walt is correct not to argue strongly that his project is worth exactly $267,000. What was the value of my mom’s study that I discussed in the post? They spent several million dollars to find that particular vitamin supplements did not reduce the risk of a second stroke in patients who had already had a stroke. Knowing that the effect was null is valuable. Was it worth several million? Should some of that several million gone to some other research project? How could we know in advance?

This is why I think Walt’s approach (and mine) is better: try to explain why social science and political science is relevant and important. Hopefully, enough members of Congress will agree and allocate funding for that purpose. At which point, the question of whether any research particular project gets funding and how much funding it receives is made by scholars who work in that field — as is true in various federal agencies that fund scientific research (NIH, NSF, etc.).

Of course, I don’t pretend that this approach will necessarily persuade Cantor or other skeptics. Nor do I think that writing this stuff on a polisci blog is enough.

JC February 16, 2013 at 1:06 am

John — Lobbying does not persuade members of Congress to adopt different policy positions. If the goal is to change anyone’s mind the battle is already lost. The goal should be to rally potential supporters and make it politically more palatable for lawmakers who don’t care about this issue (most of them) to support the social sciences rather than oppose them. Right now the reflex for more lawmakers is to vote to support spending cuts when there is no potential harm in doing so. If they aren’t hearing from the practitioners of social science in their districts they will vote to cut and say to constituents, “I have supported these cuts.” But if the social sciences have a presence in these lawmaker’s offices, they will think twice about voting to cut. In fact there will be incentives to oppose cuts to social science research because then they can call up the social science practitioners who contacted them and let them know how they fought for them.

OUR OWN POLITICAL SCIENCE RESEARCH TELL US EXACTLY THIS: Richard Hall’s research on “lobbying as legislative subsidy” demonstrates that this is exactly how lobbying can work. Poli-sci has natural allies in Congress. Besides the political scientists in the House (i.e. Rep. Dan Lipinski and Rep. David Price — members who are apparently not known by at least one of the contributors of this blog, as was demonstrated a couple days go), there are other members, largely Democrats on the science committees in each chamber who might be willing to become champions of social science in their work on Capitol Hill. Lipinski already is, and so is Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, but that is not enough.

To those who don’t think the social sciences can effectively lobby as an interest group because they cannot deliver money or votes — you don’t understand how lobbying works or how lawmakers view the support they have as elected officials. Members look for any opportunity to claim credit for fighting for a group in their district, even if its small. Any member of Congress with a college or university in their district might be reachable — especially if they work in science, research, or higher education policy (again — Democratic members of the Science committee, or the relevant approps subcommittees). Simply by making regular contact with Hill offices a group can change their perception in that office and by that representative or senator (Kris Miler’s research speaks to this directly: http://www.cambridge.org/us/knowledge/isbn/item5562921/?site_locale=en_US)

Finally, to those who think active lobbying undercuts any argument that we work in the public interest, you should know that plenty of groups claiming to be doing something in the public interest lobby, and lobby hard. Museums, science centers, and non-profit groups focused on education child achievement, and other public goods have significant visibility on Capitol Hill. So do the hard sciences. AAAS is very active in Washington. Is AAAS sullied by this? No, and neither would we be.

Making arguments in the paper or on the internet about the value of our research will not do a thing to help us on Capitol Hill, at least not by itself. It needs to be coupled with meetings in Washington with Hill staff. I’ve said it before on this blog. APSA should raise its member fees and use the extra money to hire a lobbyist and to fly political scientists to Washington once or twice a year to meet with staff of the representatives and senators whose districts and states they work and live in. It would help.

John Sides February 16, 2013 at 8:56 am

JC: I’m a signatory to a letter asking APSA to do exactly that! The mistake you and sometimes other commenters is make it to assume that — because this is a blog and, well, we write blog posts — “writing blog posts” is our theory of political action or some such thing. (To say nothing of the assumption that I don’t read the literature in American politics.)

Moreover, although I am not privy to every detail, I do know that APSA and COSSA have been in contact with members about this issue. So lobbying is going on, although I think APSA can do more.

My argument is not that we shouldn’t lobby, it’s that making strict claims about the monetary benefits of research relative to the size of federal funding is not a great argument for the social sciences or in fact any science.

JC February 16, 2013 at 12:24 pm

John-
I am glad you clarified. I took your above commented statement to say that you thought rhetorical argument was best. Perhaps I shouldn’t have responded solely to you. I don’t think “writing blog posts” is your theory of political action.

I am also aware that you know the literature. I never claimed you didn’t. But my point is that political scientists seem to not be using, emphasizing, or talking about what I know that we all know about lobbying and what makes it effective in our need to lobby for ourselves. We are spending too much time responding rhetorically to people like Cantor and Flake. It falls on deaf ears. Personal contact with offices is what is needed. I guess I just felt the need to make that point again.

I’m glad you signed the letter to APSA. However, I am a bit more privy to what seems to constitute “lobbying” by APSA on this issue, and what they are doing isn’t enough.

John Sides February 16, 2013 at 10:36 pm

JC: Well, I did say “Nor do I think that writing this stuff on a polisci blog is enough.” But we are in agreement here. More needs to be done. I may have the opportunity to help that along. Certainly I will try.

Keith February 16, 2013 at 6:38 am

I think that we are all missing the bigger picture.

This polemic on the part of Cantor is simply a “smoke screen.” It is always easier to attack a target that is weak than to attack one that isn’t. The best response on the part of Prof. Stone would have been none at all since his reply to Cantor was too academic and most probably lost on 99% of the population. Voters will not care about this issue in the least, and Cantor will not care about Prof. Stone’s weak and ineffectual rebuttal.

These kinds of social science studies are not tipping our country into debt. It is just a tiny drop in a really large pond of federal funding out there. Would that not have been a better argument to espouse rather than trying to validate his research study? If we want to keep our funding, we have to fight fire with fire and take off the kid gloves. Let’s be tough and stand up to our politicians. We need to hold them accountable and not simply acquiesce to them. The fact is that cutting these funds will not solve our country’s debt woes. We put politicians in DC to work FOR US and we have every right to tell them how to do their job.

We need to frame our issues better and stand up for what we believe in and find ways to make voters care.

ron lewis February 23, 2013 at 11:50 am

Wow, self-serving myopia run amok. Scientists love facts, except when they don’t.

“These…studies are…just a tiny drop.”
Sandy Hook was just a few murders. Sandusky only molested a few kids. Go ahead, I bet you can cite some other nonsensical rationalizations.

“We need to hold them accountable…”
So, help me understand. We seem to agree that “Voters will not care about this issue in the least.” We agree that the country has a huge debt problem. Also, I hope we agree that pols are accountable to voters, and not college professors living off government paychecks. I know that 1+1=2, but how does Voters+out-of-control debt+accountable pols not = funding cuts? Instead, I sense you mean something more like My salary+corruptible pols+disregard for voters = research funding.

I agree that you need to find ways to make voters care; but I wonder why all of you smart academics have never conducted a study to determine whether you will ever be able to make voters care. Could it be that you don’t want to know that answer? I understand that ignorance is bliss, and that it’s easier to just corrupt the pols to go against the voters’ wishes, but do you have to act so smug and self-righteous about it?

Richard DeSpirito February 16, 2013 at 8:16 am

A possibly naive comment and a question: Why should the government fund ANY
research?

Can someone recommend a good source so that I might better understand the history of

how government began funding research?

DRDR February 16, 2013 at 11:42 am

The NSF’s own history is a good place to start.
http://www.nsf.gov/about/history/overview-50.jsp
http://www.nsf.gov/about/history/nsf50/nsf8816.jsp

These links may not precisely answer your question, to the extent that governments have funded research prior to the NSF, but understanding the origin of the NSF might be more relevant today than the broader history of government-funded research. Observe that NSF social science funding was a contentious issue from the very beginning.

JC February 16, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Promoting the sciences is one of the major functions and goals of our government. See Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.

RobC February 16, 2013 at 5:11 pm

JC, isn’t it bad form to quote things out of context? Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution lists among the powers of Congress, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” That means one of the major functions and goals of our government is to establish a system of copyright and patents. What it doesn’t mean is that among the major functions and goals of our government is to promote the sciences by underwriting research.

Happily, there are other provisions that do provide the necessary constitutional power, in particular, providing for the “general Welfare of the United States.” But let’s be intellectually honest, lest we gain a few million dollars in research money and lose our souls.

ron lewis February 23, 2013 at 11:59 am

You’re not naive, Richard, you’re just one of the people paying the bill and not one of those living off the proceeds.

To save you the trouble of reading all the answers you’ll receive, I’ll tell you that they’ll all make a seemingly wonderful case supporting government funding based on altruistic goals and idealistic predictions of rosy outcomes.

What you won’t read is any explanation or rationalization that supports government funding of science (except for a few extreme examples) when the government has no funds, when any funding received was borrowed by taxpayers who are already over the heads in unsustainable debt.

In this crazy world, altruism and idealism outweigh common sense.

DRDR February 16, 2013 at 12:02 pm

The most relevant paragraph of the 1994 NSF history for the current debate:
——–
Debate over including the social sciences in the programs of the Foundation had punctuated the legislative history of the statute. Those disciplines finally were permitted but not required under the rubric of “other sciences.” In the early 1950s, it took the patient diplomacy of a few social scientists as well as pressure from congressmen to overcome the opposition of most of the staff and the science board to integrate into established agency programs some social science disciplines that converged with the natural and life sciences. Anthropology, human ecology, and demography, for example, were included in the biological sciences division and in 1955 the Foundation placed a program for sociophysical sciences in the mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences division. That program included mathematical social science, human geography, economic engineering, statistical design, and the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. But not until 1958 did the board approve formal support of the “other sciences” by creating an office of social science that brought all the disciplines together. Even though they had to meet rigorous standards of “objectivity, verifiability, and generality,” a great many scientists opposed including the social sciences. One board member commented in 1958: “…we have to face up to the fact that the social sciences–except for a few extremely limited areas–are a source of trouble beyond anything released by Pandora.”
——
If you search the document for mentions of social science, you’ll find that the piece also includes discussion of Ted Kennedy’s role in elevating the status of social sciences, the controversy over a project called “Man: A Course of Study” that allegedly undermined family values, and the Reagan cuts to social science funding in the 1980s because “The administration did not consider social science as an area that supported the long-term economic health of the nation.”

Tracy Lightcap February 16, 2013 at 3:47 pm

I don’t have much to add to this, but the life science community sure does. See:

http://mikethemadbiologist.com/2012/04/24/it-sure-looks-like-theres-a-phd-glut-especially-if-youre-a-young-phd/

The mechanism we use for allocating funds in the biosciences is so loaded with perverse incentives that end up screwing young people that it borders on a national disgrace. Yet – surprise, surprise – it is the social sciences that end up getting the majority of the attention when cuts to science funding come up. Why? See:

http://mikethemadbiologist.com/2013/02/07/the-overproduction-of-phds-and-the-nihs-failure-of-governance/

Oh, they’re cute over at NIH alright. This is a “When the other side draws a knife, you draw a gun!” situation, unfortunately, and we need, as recommended above, to get more effective lobbying for the social sciences.

John Henderson February 17, 2013 at 9:26 am

Anyone that genuinely believes the U.S.A. Is the worlds oldest democracy is obviously wrong!

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