Archive | National Science Foundation

Do Proportional Electoral Laws Politicize Ethnicity?

A perennial and crucial question—one intimately tied to the national security interests of the United States—is how to design political institutions that can mitigate ethnic conflict.  This issue was front-and-center when the United States worked to establish new Iraqi political institutions after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (see, for example, here).  The conundrum is this: can you design political institutions that enable ethnic groups to be or at least feel represented in government, while not simultaneously exacerbating ethnic divisions?

In this article, political scientist John Huber investigates one important institution: proportional representation.  Here is his summary of what he found:

What is the best electoral law for stable democratic government in ethnically divided societies?  Constitutional engineers have long debated this question, typically focusing on the relative merits of proportional electoral laws (“PR”), which provide representation to parties in proportion to the number of votes that parties receive.  It has been widely believed that PR politicizes ethnicity, with some arguing that this is a good thing (because each ethnic group will have its own party, encouraging them to participate non-violently in the democratic process) and some arguing it is bad (because the goal should be to depoliticize ethnicity, encouraging voters to focus on other factors, such as economic class).  This debate, however, has been plagued by the absence of facts:  we have not had the technology to test the effect of electoral laws on the politicization of ethnicity.

This research develops measures that can be used to assess the degree to which ethnicity is politicized in the electoral politics of a country.   The measures focus on the connection between ethnic identity and voting behavior.  The tighter this connection, the greater the degree of ethnic politicization.  Applying the measure to a wide range of countries, the study demonstrates that in fact PR is associated with lower levels of politicization.   This finding has important implications for constitutional design in divided societies and provides fact-based evidence supporting advocates for PR.

It also helps us to understand racial politics in the US.  If Hispanic Americans want to be influential as a group within the plurality system of the US, they must vote cohesively. If the US operated under proportional representation, then different parties would compete for the Hispanic vote thereby diminishing the salience of race in elections.


[For more in this week’s presentation of NSF-funded research recently published in the American Journal of Political Science, see here and here.]

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“If politics determines what is palatable, we could be picked off one at a time.”

A letter by political scientist Rick Wilson, published in Science (gated):

The “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013” (1) guaranteeing funding for the federal government has, buried in the legislation, a direct attack on science. Senator Tom Coburn (R–OK) introduced an amendment that eliminates all political science research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), except where it promotes the “national security or the economic interests of the United States” (2). The amendment passed under a voice vote in the Senate, the full bill passed both the Senate and the House, and the President signed it into law on 26 March.

While a seemingly innocuous bit of legislating, this amendment constitutes a serious threat to the conduct of science in the United States. The NSF has long been a preeminent institution for funding basic research and relies on an independent peer-reviewed system. Now political judgment is supplanting scientific judgment. The congressional mandate is clear: No funding will be available for basic research in political science. Legislation now dictates which topics can be studied and eliminates entire fields of study.

Some scientists may view this as a minor matter. After all, some believe that the study of politics cannot be scientific or that this is simply one small program among hundreds at NSF. However, political science is a defined discipline. It studies the exercise of power, it tests hypotheses, and it draws inferences from well-measured empirical phenomena. Worse, the larger science community should not ignore the shackling of one program at NSF. If politics dictates what is worth studying, all disciplines are at risk. Why stop at political science? Why not neuter any grants that touch on evolutionary theories? After all, many in Congress deny the value of Darwin. The challenge to science is clear. If politics determines what is palatable, we could be picked off one at a time. The science community needs to clearly voice its opposition to this political intrusion in defining what is acceptable science.

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What Makes People Flee Conflict?

The fifth largest city in Jordan is the Zaatari refugee camp, where approximately 175,000 Syrians fleeing their country’s war now live.  This is but a fraction of the 500,000 Syrians who have fled to Jordan, and an even smaller fraction of Syrians who have fled their own homes and now live in other countries or elsewhere within Syria.  Obviously, the displacement of civilians depends in part on presence or threat of violence.  But what else may explain whether citizens flee conflict?

In his doctoral research—supported in part by the National Science Foundation—Prakash Adhikari studied the factors that led civilians to flee in a different conflict, the Nepalese Civil War, that displaced approximately 50,000 people from their homes.  A survey of both displaced and non-displaced Nepalese revealed not only the role of violence, but the importance of economic infrastructure (and its destruction).  People who lived in villages with an industry present—in this case, one that employed 10 or more people—were less likely to flee.  People who lost crops, animals, or land were more likely to flee.

None of these findings is surprising on its face.  But Adhikari’s work suggests that the logic of displacement is more than just about violence or physical threat.  And—though Nepal and Syria are in no way strictly analogous (the juxtaposition here is mine, not his)—Adhikari’s work suggests how the United States and the rest of the international community might be able to prevent large-scale forced migration: not only by working to reduce the threat of violence, but by supporting the economic and social infrastructure of affected communities.  Foreign governments and NGOs already do this, of course, but Adhikari’s work shows that such efforts can be consequential.

Moreover, given how displacement only adds to the human toll and political destabilization caused by civil war, and given that the United States frequently assists in ending civil wars or at least mitigating their effects, I think this research also happens to meet Senator Coburn’s stated criterion that federally funded research serve the national security of the United States.

The article is here.

[This post is part of this week’s presentation of NSF-funded political science research.]

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Making Ballots Better

This is the first article featured in this week’s series about NSF-funded political science research—and specifically research published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2012.  This is research by Paul Herrnson, Michael Hanmer, and Richard Niemi.  The article is here.  This is how they described it:

Something as simple as the design of a ballot can influence how citizens vote and especially how and how frequently voters make errors when choosing candidates.  We conducted an experiment in which voters’ intentions were known and these intentions were compared to the votes they cast using two different types of ballots.  Both ballots used the standard “office-bloc” format, but one ballot also included a straight-party option—where filling in one circle or arrow or touching one button automatically registers a vote for all of a party’s candidates.  Fifteen states currently provide a straight-party option.

Our central finding: voters make more errors when using the ballot with the straight-party option. Some of the experiment’s participants failed to vote for any candidate when they intended to support one.  Even more participants selected the wrong candidate—that is, the opponent of the candidate they actually supported.  These errors, while not common in absolute terms, were about 4-5 times more likely when participants made their choices using the ballot with the straight-ticket option.  This was true regardless of whether participants voted using a paper ballot or a touchscreen.  The elderly, African Americans, and those without a high school education were particularly likely to make errors using the straight-party ballot.

Voting is one of the most important rights of citizens.  It is a serious problem if citizens make the effort to vote and know who they intend to vote for, but then vote incorrectly because of ballot design. Ballots designed for the hand-marked, hand-counted paper ballots introduced at the end of the nineteenth century lead to errors when used on modern voting systems.  Because most state legislatures have already purchased new voting systems, it will be more cost effective for legislators to focus on improving ballot designs. Given the centrality of elections to representative democracy, such efforts are warranted.

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What Has the NSF Wrought, Part II

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.

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