Archive | Political Science News

Economics Nobel and Elinor Ostrom

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel has gone to Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley. The latter is known to political scientists primarily for the Shapley-Shubik power index, developed in this 1954 American Political Science Review article. This index is still used frequently in applications and is one of his three most cited articles according to Scholar Google, although he appears to have gotten the prize for his work on matching methods.

Today at 3pm, Indiana University will livestream a celebration of the lives of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom who both passed away this summer. Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel prize in 2009.

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APSA Meeting Going Ahead from Thursday

From APSA’s website
Weather Alert: Hurricane Isaac
Updated: August 27, 2012 (2:30pm)

UPDATE: Meeting to Start on Thursday.
Following Mayor Landrieu’s press conference (8/27) affirming that the city is prepared for the storm, and from our own independent inquires, we will continue with the official start of the meeting on Thursday as announced. We urge all travellers to take appropriate caution with their own circumstances.

All Wednesday events CANCELLED (including Short Courses)
In light of the projected conditions in New Orleans by hurricane Isaac, APSA is cancelling all pre-conference meeting activities on Wednesday, August 29th, including planned short courses.

CONFERENCE REGISTRATION/BADGE PICKUP: Will begin on Thursday, August 30 in New Orleans Marriott Preservation Hall (7am – 6pm).

CONFERENCE REGISTRATION REFUND: The official meeting will begin on Thursday, August 30, with the understanding that participants unable to attend the meeting due to flight cancellations or unsafe driving conditions to New Orleans will be eligible for refunds of their conference registration fees.

Changing Reservations: Contact hotels directly (see below). Some attendees may need to contact Travel Planners directly (if instructed by hotel): 1-800-221-3531 (in US) and 011+212-532-1660 (outside US).

Cancelling Reservations: Attendees who need to cancel reservations should contact the hotels directly to inquire about cancellation policies. We will update this page with specific language from each of hotel as soon as this is obtained.

New Orleans Marriott – (504) 581-1000
Sheraton New Orleans – (504) 525-2500
JW Marriott – (504) 525-6500
Hilton New Orleans – (504) 561-0500
Loews New Orleans – (504) 595-3300
Renaissance – (504) 525-1111
Courtyard by Marriott – 504-581-9005

Check back here for additional news.

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Charles Lane and the Market for Political Science

Charles Lane writes an opinion piece for the Washington Post today, taking issue with posts at the Monkey Cage, and arguing that the NSF should not fund political science (or the social sciences more generally). My take (other Monkey Cagers may differ) is that his argument starts in the right place, but ends up in the wrong one.

Perhaps it was frivolous to spend $301,000 on a study of gender and political ambition among students, as Flake charges. Or perhaps a report on economic sanctions was a good taxpayer investment, as McCarty and his fellow department chairs insist. The relevant question, however, is whether society could have reaped equal or greater benefits through other uses of the money — and how unreasonable it would be to ask the political scientists to rely on non-federal support. If this research is as valuable as its proponents say, someone other than the U.S. Treasury will pay for it. If anything, Flake’s amendment does not go far enough: the NSF shouldn’t fund any social science. The private sector chronically underinvests in basic scientific research; the costs and risks are relatively high, and the benefits relatively hard to commercialize. Government support compensates for this “market failure,” enabling society to reap “positive externalities” — economic, environmental or military. Federal funding for mathematics, engineering and other “hard” sciences is appropriate. In these fields, researchers can test their hypotheses under controlled conditions; then those experiments can be repeated by others.Though quantitative methods may rule economics, political science and psychology, these disciplines can never achieve the objectivity of the natural sciences. Those who study social behavior — or fund studies of it — are inevitably influenced by value judgments, left, right and center. And unlike hypotheses in the hard sciences, hypotheses about society usually can’t be proven or disproven by experimentation. Society is not a laboratory.

Lane’s argument has three parts. First – that we should think about the opportunity costs of funding political science, as opposed to funding other kinds of research. Second, that if the research is “valuable”, then someone else than the government will pay for it. Third, that there is no “market failure” in the social sciences because there is no way to test social science propositions.

Lane is right to say that we should think about funding allocation in terms of opportunity costs. However, as Seth Masket has observed, he is wrong to suggest that social science findings are no better than value-judgments gussied up with pretty numbers.1 Indeed, if you think about it for a bit, Lane’s apparent belief that there’s no way to establish reliable truths about politics and society is a radically postmodern one. But what’s most interesting, perhaps, is Lane’s suggestion that we should think about market and market failure in the social sciences.

As it happens, there is a market for ‘political science,’ even if it’s one that many political scientists don’t usually compare to their own research. It’s mostly supplied by think tanks, on the right, left and center of the political spectrum, as well as for-profit consultancy firms. These think tanks, to a greater or lesser extent, are market oriented (albeit towards a quite idiosyncratic ‘market’). If there isn’t obvious funding for research on a particular issue, think-tanks will avoid it. If funding dries up for an issue, then think tanks will drop it. Finally, the arguments and findings of think-tank sponsored research usually have to fit into some range acceptable to the sponsor. This is not to say that think tank fellows are hacks, or cut their opinions to suit their sponsor’s measures. It is to say that some kinds of opinions (those which can attract substantial funding) tend to be over-represented in think-tank research, while others are systematically under-represented.

If think tank funding reflected voters’ best interests, this wouldn’t be a problem. Sadly, it doesn’t. Businesses are responsible to their shareholders rather than to the general public, and their funding decisions are likely to reflect this. Unions are responsible to their members – not to society as a whole. Foundations have their own politics and priorities, and individual funders are pretty quirky. Research by think tanks reflects the priorities of this disparate bunch of funders, not the broader priorities of the US public. Again – this is not to dump on think tanks. Much of their work is good; some of what is not good is at least interesting and provocative. Furthermore, there is a lot that the profession of political science can, and should learn from them (e.g. how better to engage in public debate). But we shouldn’t rely on think tank sponsored research alone, since it usually indirectly reflects funders’ priorities. Still less should we rely on research emanating from professional research consultancies, which are typically purely market driven, and hence prepared to find more or less what their sponsors want them to find.

In short, there is a market for political science – but one that’s imperfect in at least two ways. First, some kinds of research will be systematically underprovided, as per Mancur Olson’s arguments about collective action. For example, large scale social science research, which is of benefit to US society as a whole, but not to individual groups or tendencies within it, will be provided suboptimally, or not provided at all by the ‘market.’

Second, there is a broader problem of truth on the market. If Lane got his druthers, and all social science was privately sponsored, some points of view (on the right, left or center) would be over-represented, and some under-represented. People interested e.g. in sponsoring research on the cost-effectiveness of economic sanctions are likely to have strong interests, whether they be in loosening sanctions (so as to get market access), or strengthening them (because they have strong political objections to the regime being targeted). These interests are likely to be reflected in their choices over who they fund, and to what end.

This would hurt US democracy. First and most obviously, it would limit the information available to policy makers. All that they would know about on important social questions was whatever was provided by interested (and often self-interested) private actors. Second, and more subtly, this information would be even less useful than it is in the current system. NSF funded research does two important things. First, it provides widely available datasets on many issues of public importance, which are not systematically skewed to support one interest or another (the NSF likes projects that have social and political relevance – it does not like projects that seem designed to support pre-cooked conclusions). Secondly, it provides funding to expert researchers to work with this data. This not only provides valuable findings, but it helps keep others honest. If someone wants to do sponsored research e.g. on why there aren’t more women involved in politics, and they use their own idiosyncratic data, rather than broadly available datasets, without good reason, they’re likely to get serious criticism from other researchers. If someone uses commonly available datasets (such as those sponsored by the NSF), but skews their techniques so as to reach a predetermined conclusion, then it’s much easier for others to identify the flaws, and to show how better specifications would lead to different results. In short, if we didn’t have a disinterested body, such as the NSF, meeting the public need for objective research on important social questions, then interested actors would (a) have the field to themselves, and (b) would have much greater incentive to cook the books.

Lane is right to think that we should look at the marketplace for the social sciences. He is quite wrong, however, in arguing that social science can’t aspire to objectivity, and hence is blind to the actual market failures that we would see in the absence of NSF funding. The opportunity costs of abolishing funding for the social sciences are very, very high, precisely because the social sciences provide the best and least biased (albeit still imperfect) knowledge we have about the functioning of politics, markets and society. If we didn’t have this funding, we would see other actors rushing in to fill the gap – the problem is that what would fill this gap would be far, far worse, than what we have already. This doesn’t let political science off scot-free – as John and I have argued elsewhere, the discipline needs to do a much better job in communicating its findings to a broader public than it does at the moment. More attention to reproducibility, along the lines that Victoria Stodden is pushing, would be nice too. Even so, I’m pretty sure that Charles Lane would miss publicly funded social science much more than he realizes, if it suddenly weren’t there any more.

1 Lane’s claim that “society is not a laboratory” runs directly against my favorite quote from notorious self-interest serving special-interest-flunky David Hume. “Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them.”

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New Writing on Labor and American Politics

That is the subject of the latest issue of The Forum, which should be ungated here (although you may need to register).  Here’s the line-up:



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More NSF Reporting: Fox News and Support for the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

The following guest post is by Chris Gelpi, who was on the receiving end of some Senatorial criticism about his NSF grant.


Representative Flake has argued that Political Science research does not deserve public support primarily because we “try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.”  Last year Senator Tom Coburn launched a similar effort and the central complaint of both politicians seems to be that Political Science research is either irrelevant to the public’s welfare or reaches conclusions that are banal and obvious.

I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of one of the NSF grants (#0819038) singled out by Senator Coburn as objectionable, so I thought I would share some of my results.  The study explored how Americans construct their attitudes toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The bulk of the grant money paid for a series of surveys that included several experiments.  Each experiment included news story about ongoing combat operations in Iraq or Afghanistan as well as commentary from a Democratic or Republican politician.  I randomly varied whether the news events and the commentary were positive or negative about the war.

The study found that people responded to news events rather than to partisan commentary about the wars.  Perhaps even more importantly, the study found that people responded to surprising news events that contradicted their expectations.  So Democrats (and Independents) who received a “good news” story became more supportive of the wars, while Republicans who received “bad news” stories became less supportive.

These results are “good news” for American public policy in the sense that they show that Americans can make reasoned choices about their support for war that are independent of statements from their party leaders.  This ability is the first step in making it possible for the public to influence public policy in this area.

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What Has the NSF Wrought?

This is a guest post by Rick Wilson, Herbert S. Autrey Chair of Political Science at Rice University and current editor of the American Journal of Political Science.

Years ago I was a Political Science program officer at NSF and I can attest to Chris Zorn’s comments about the review process posted in this blog.  NSF’s peer review process is thorough and complete.  Since that time I have served on numerous NSF panels and I continue to be impressed by the time and energy devoted to ensuring that the best in basic research is funded.  My usual lament for NSF was that there was too much great research being proposed and not enough money to fund it all.

These days I get to see the results of work funded by NSF.  While I completely agree that political scientists (like many scientists) do not communicate their research to the public very well, they do communicate their results to the discipline.  This is an important step for generating knowledge.  Basic research needs scientific scrutiny and scientific journals serve this role.  I try to get excellent research out to the community in a timely fashion.  That work is read and commented on by many in the scientific community.  That work serves to stimulate other research (not funded by NSF) to verify the findings. Sometimes (and not as often as I would like) the research that I publish is translated to the broader community.

Here’s a sampler of NSF funded research appearing in the AJPS over the past several years.  The Midwest Political Science Association and Wiley Publishers have made these articles open to the community, so you can read them at your leisure. This research is addressing fundamental questions debated by politicians and policy makers alike.  It is not irrelevant research that only matters for the narrow few.  Instead the research has very broad implications.

A sampler:

  • Ramiro Berardo and John Scholz.  July 2010.  “Self-Organizing Policy Networks:  Risk, Partner Selection, and Cooperation in Estuaries.”  This project was funded by NSF and extends basic science research using mathematical tools common to social networks.  This study looks explicitly at networks involving policy makers dealing with coastal estuaries.  Policy makers face the problem of the “Tragedy of the Commons” and this work relies on insights from the Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom.  They find that in riskier settings (where the resource is the most fragile) highly connected networks spring up and these are important for preventing further resource decline.

  • Peter Hatemi et al.  July 2010.  “Not by Twins Alone:  Using the Extended Family Design to Investigate Genetic Influence on Political Beliefs.” A project funded in part by NSF.  This is one of an increasing number of studies providing evidence for a strong genetic component to political attitudes.  The point to the research is not that politics is purely genetic – but that individuals are born with personality traits that carry with them through their life.  These are related to political attitudes.

  • Nathan J. Kelly and Peter K. Ennis.  Oct. 2010.  “Inequality and the Dynamics of Public Opinion:  The Self-Reinforcing Link Between Economic Inequality and Mass Preferences.”  This research, funded by NSF, looks at the threat that rising income inequality has for democracy.  The findings call into question the idea that changes in inequality result in a shift in mass opinion toward more liberal ideas.  Indeed the research indicates that increases in inequality shifts mass public opinion in a more conservative direction.

  • Douglas M. Gibler and Jaroslav Tir.  Oct. 2010.  “Settled Borders and Regime Type:  Democratic Transitions as Consequences of Peaceful Territorial Transfers.” Research funded by NSF.  This article goes directly to the heart of territorial boundary issues.  Using data from a long period, the findings indicate that peaceful territorial transfers (getting states to solve their border disputes) have two long-term effects.  First, it radically decreases the likelihood of war between states.  Second, it allows those states to more quickly adopt democratic institutions.  The implication is that proactive actions in solving territorial disputes (often by third parties) pays off in important ways.

  • Richard Nielsen et al.  April 2011.  “Foreign Aid Shocks as a Cause of Violent Armed Conflict.”  This research, funded by the NSF, carefully examines foreign aid to countries over a 25 year period.  Taking into account a variety of other possible explanations, it shows that a sudden decrease in foreign aid results in an increase in violent conflict within countries.  Withdrawing foreign aid destabilizes governments, making them appear weaker to insurgents within countries.  The effect is very pronounced and persists.

  • Katerina Linos.  July 2011.  “Diffusion through Democracy.”  This research, funded by the NSF, asks whether international norms affect politicians in other countries.  The author provides useful evidence to demonstrate that while politicians are bound to their own domestic constituencies, international organizations can temper those constituencies.  The diffusion of democratic ideas appears to have a broad reach.

  • John Barry Ryan.  October 2011.  “Social Networks as a Shortcut to Correct Voting.”  Funded by the National Science Foundation, this research points to the importance of local communities for providing information to largely uninformed voters.  Much of political communication focuses on politicians targeting individual voters and pundits have long been worried that those messages fall flat.  For many people, particularly independents, politics is not at the forefront of their daily lives.  This research demonstrates that neighbors can provide important shortcuts for uninformed voters and those voters cast a vote consistent with what they would have done if they were fully informed.

  • Yanna Krupnikov.  October 2011.  “When Does Negativity Demobilize?  Tracing the Conditional Effect of Negative Campaigning on Voter Turnout.” This research uses the American National Election Studies data funded by the NSF to address the question of negative campaigning on turnout.  While negative campaigning is common in American Politics, it is not clear whether is has a detrimental effect on who decides to turnout to vote.  This research demonstrates that the biggest effect will be with voters who have decided on a candidate and then are exposed to negative information about their choice.  This stands in contrast to the usual view that those who are undecided will be turned off by negative campaigns.

  • Luke N. Condra and Jacob N. Shapiro.  January 2012.  “Who Takes the Blame?  The Strategic Effects of Collateral Damage.”  Funded by the NSF, this research points to the military consequences for civilian casualties.  The research focuses on Iraq from 2004 through 2009 and looks at civilian collateral damage due to either Coalition forces or Insurgents.  The findings demonstrate that both sides suffer adverse civilian reactions when viewed as being responsible for collateral damage.  These findings stress the importance for Coalition forces to avoid civilian casualties through collateral damage.

Obviously this listing is by no means complete.  But my point is that the research being conducted by my colleagues and funded by the NSF is first rate, pushes the boundaries of science and is relevant to contemporary society.  That work touches on the underpinnings to democratic institutions, how varied citizen interests get translated into public policy, how peace can be encouraged and how economic shocks affect long-term voting patterns.  All are questions of contemporary relevance.  The answers to these questions are not based on opinions nor are they susceptible to 15-second sound bites.  The work is complicated and uses jargon.  However, that should not diminish its importance.

It is a shame to see any body of research be singled out for dismantling.  I can certainly understand the impulse to think that political scientists are little more than glorified talking heads who comment on today’s politics.  Consequently, why shower taxpayer money on them?  But this misrepresents what political scientists do.  As noted above, we are concerned with providing scientific evidence with which to answer fundamental social and political problems.  To cut the political science program at NSF is a shortsighted strategy.  It eliminates a critical source of independent funding for basic research to answer fundamental questions.  In the long run this will hamper decision makers who will face even more complicated choices in a complex world.

In the end, although few of us understand modern Physics (and even fewer read Physics journals) would it make sense to cut that program at NSF?  Basic science findings in Physics may or may not payoff in the long run. In a similar fashion basic science findings in Political Science are investments in knowledge.  The payoffs are to current and future generations of policymakers.  Political Scientists can do a much better job of translating their findings to the public.  But at the same time the basic science needs to be done.  It makes no sense to cut Political Science from NSF.

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“Social science literally defines the terms of debates…”

Social science literally defines the terms of the debates we have about the sources of economic growth, about whether elections are fair, about whether the United States is a hegemon or a declining power, about whether the West is a more open society than the Rest, about gender equity and income mobility and school quality and divorce rates and whether prettier candidates win more votes.

PM, at Duck of Minerva, on the value of social science.  Also:

Indeed, the alternative to good social science is not no social science but bad social science.

See more at the link.

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