What Has the NSF Wrought, Part II

by John Sides on May 12, 2013 · 4 comments

in National Science Foundation,Political science

This week we will be featuring several posts on political science research projects funded by the National Science Foundation.  Each of these projects led to an article that was published in the American Journal of Political ScienceAJPS Editor Rick Wilson identified these projects and solicited a short description of the project’s findings and broader implications from the authors.  We’re glad to feature this research and thank Rick and the authors for their assistance.  Here, by way of introduction, is Rick’s prologue:

On April 17 I watched the U.S. House Subcommittee on Research hold hearings on the National Science Foundation.  The statements by members and the various witnesses were instructive.  Majority members pressed the case that in times of austerity difficult decisions will have to be made about what is relevant to the American taxpayers.  Minority members made their case for the importance of basic research and the difficulty in predicting what scientific research will have future payoffs.  Both sides are in agreement about the need for basic research, but in disagreement over the extent to which public funds should be extended to all of the sciences.

In opening statements, Cora Marrett, Acting Director of the NSF, presented an overview of the Budget and made the President’s case for the importance of science.  Dan Arvizu, Chair of the National Science Board which helps direct NSF’s long term goals, also made an eloquent plea for basic research.  Surprisingly, Arvizu spent a significant amount of his allotted five minutes to also defend the peer review system and political science in particular.  He argued that the Coburn Amendment, embedded in the Continuing Resolution for the U.S. budget (CR 933), shackled a particular scientific discipline, limiting what could be studied.  He went on to hold up Elinor Ostrom’s work as an example of basic research that demonstrates that devolved local groups often resolve common pool resource problems more effectively – a point that both sides of the aisle should appreciate. (You can read his statement here.)

In questions by the committee it was clear that some members were having a difficult time understanding what it is that the social, behavioral and economics sciences contribute.  After all we do not build huge telescopes, cure diseases or invent new widgets.  Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who is the Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, pressed for NSF to make clear what the social, behavioral and economic sciences do for American society.  He was searching for a broader statement of what it is that the social sciences contribute. Also see the broader discussion here.

I have no doubt that the social sciences are important.  Most of the problems confronting the US and the world are a result of human behavior.  This is true for global climate change, for pandemics and for wars.  Yet, as postings in many blogs have pointed out, we can do better communicating our basic findings to the mass public.  As with the natural and biological sciences, it is critical that we engage with the broader community.

A year ago I wrote a guest post here at The Monkey Cage concerning NSF-funded work that made its way into the journal that I edit, the American Journal of Political Science.  At that point I wrote a short blurb describing why the work was important.  I decided to do so again, looking at articles that have been published in the past year.  Instead of me writing about the articles, I asked each author to write a short blurb.  I was delighted by how quickly authors responded and how easy it was to make their findings clear to a general audience.  I was also impressed by how much of the research AJPS publishes is directly tied to NSF funding.  What I did not include is the huge number of studies that make use of NSF funded data collection efforts.

All of these articles have been made freely available for the next six months.

{ 4 comments }

anon May 12, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Since they are tax payer funded these articles should have been freely available from day one, forever.

Surely a one time open access license fee of <=2K$ charged to NSF grant is much more effective than have tax payers pay for research, and then for individual article download or subscription. As a taxpayer I feel like I'm subsiding AJPS. Keeping publicly funded articles behind a paywall is a sure way of diminishing the impact of NSF grants.

John Sides May 13, 2013 at 9:50 am
RobC May 13, 2013 at 3:50 pm

The Obama Administration’s proposal would be for federally-funded papers to remain behind paywalls for up to a year, “to ensure that the valuable contributions that the scientific publishing industry provides are not lost.”

In some post in the future* it might be useful to explore the economics of academic publications. I surmise that the high price of these publications is very largely attributable to printing and mailing costs. If that is true, the situation seems to cry out for a transition to electronically-distributed publications, possibly with the costs borne entirely by universities which sponsor them. Those readers who are wedded to reading the articles in print form could either print them out on their departmental or office printers or pay for printed versions of the journals at the typical exorbitant price. If universities wished to disincentivize the latter, they could either let the professors pay some portion of the cost out of their own pockets or establish an individual budget for printed publications and give professors some portion of their individual unspent budget allotment as a cash bonus.
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* This particular post, relating to the value of NSF projects, may not be an appropriate vehicle for an exploration of the facts concerning academic publications and possible alternative models, but it seems like a discussion worth having.

Tracy Lightcap May 12, 2013 at 10:45 pm

The main problem we have here is that we simply haven’t connected present day advertising and sales to the social sciences writ large.

What drives the kind of advertising one sees on, say, Amazon today? And, we might add, the kind of analysis that leads to it? The answer is pretty simple: NSF financed research, largely by political scientists and sociologists, that came up with the techniques for collecting, archiving, and analyzing Big Data. The folks in Congress are sitting in a world that the people who read this blog have already transformed beyond their kin. It’s the multi-level ordered probit regression models with post stratification that are driving the analysis of large scale databases for advertising and market analysis. It’s the research on networks that is driving how we analyze disease transmission. It’s the research on … well, I could go on, but it’s late. I don’t have any doubt that Congresspeople will get the message sooner or later. I just hope it’s this year.

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