This week, I was one of 12 Americans to receive a National Humanities Medal, based in part on research I began more than 40 years ago on civil society and democracy. Making Democracy Work has become one of the most cited works of social science in the past half-century, because it offered hard scientific evidence for the classic idea that grass-roots civic engagement — what the English conservative Edmund Burke called “the little platoons” of society — is the crucial ingredient in successful democracies. … Because my findings resonated broadly, American leaders from Bill Clinton to Jeb Bush and from Mike Huckabee to Al Gore have discussed the implications of this work for the challenges facing our country today. One of the harshest critics of National Science Foundation funding of political science has even praised my study as “one of the most influential pieces of practical research in the last half-century.”
Ironically, however, if the recent amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that restricts NSF funding for political science had been in effect when I began this research, it never would have gotten off the ground since the foundational grant that made this project possible came from the NSF Political Science Program. The NSF is now grappling with what Coburn’s narrow criteria mean for the $10 million of political science research it supports each year.