Archive | Political science

Jeff Isaac on the NSF and Political Science

Jeff Isaac has an essay at Dissent.

I join with my colleagues in opposing the Coburn amendment, and I am behind the efforts of APSA to support NSF-funded political science research. And I positively embrace one powerful line of argument that is being advanced against the amendment: that by recognizing only the values of national security and economic growth, the amendment disparages the most important public value of a free society—the value of democracy itself. As my colleagues rightly argue, citizens and leaders who take democracy seriously ought not simply to refrain from attacking political science; they ought to enthusiastically support political science, which more than any academic discipline centers its research and its teaching on the dynamics and challenges of democratic governance. Is this research and teaching of “use” to American citizens? Only those hostile to democracy, and to the relationship between democracy and public inquiry, could even seriously pose this question.
There are at least three ways that the narrative of the seamless connection of political science and the NSF with democracy is problematic. … For Coburn, real science is an enterprise that generates the kinds of predictive knowledge that allows us to productively transform our world … Political science ought to be judged in terms of its distinctive civic contributions, my colleagues insist. And they are right. … But … for many decades the “official position” of those political scientists who have been closest to the NSF and have received NSF funding has been that the social sciences are “real sciences” in precisely the sense of physics and chemistry. … This perspective has often generated research publications that are unintelligible to many fellow political scientists, much less the broader reading public that might be considered “informed.” … many very distinguished political scientists do not accept this model and in recent years have presented a great many alternatives to it. Instead of merely defending current practice in political science, they raise a set of broader questions about the ways that the “public relevance” of political science might be considered, discussed, and debated by political scientists, both in the broader public domain and within the discipline itself. Many political science colleagues, particularly those drawn to “hard science” approaches, are understandably annoyed by the posing of these questions in this way, which they do not consider a very important or “productive” enterprise. … Instead of merely defending current practice in political science, they raise a set of broader questions about the ways that the “public relevance” of political science might be considered, discussed, and debated by political scientists, both in the broader public domain and within the discipline itself. Many political science colleagues, particularly those drawn to “hard science” approaches, are understandably annoyed by the posing of these questions in this way, which they do not consider a very important or “productive” enterprise.
My colleagues who are experiencing Schadenfreude at the Coburn amendment see little value in the “high tech” work funded by the NSF, because this work is typically pretty remote from the work that they do, and they experience no direct and palpable advantages from it. But in fact this NSF-funded work is an important part of broader inquiry in political science … At the same time, my colleagues who are simply outraged over the Coburn amendment, and who imagine that every decent political scientist ought to rush to the barricades in “defense of political science,” often fail to appreciate that the political science they are calling on their colleagues to defend often relegates many of these colleagues to second-class status in the discipline.

There’s a lot that I agree with in this essay. However, my perception (which may perhaps be shaped by the fact that I work in a department where quantitatively and qualitatively inclined people work together happily, read and comment on each other’s work and so on), is that this problem is not only resolvable but is being resolved over time. Over the last number of years, there has been a palpable shift on both the quantitative and qualitative sides of the profession, towards greater public engagement with interesting public questions rather than engaging in arcane internal disputes. One of the reasons that I thought that the Jacqueline Stevens op-ed was so unfortunate was because it seemed intended to drag us back to the bitterness and divisiveness of the 1990s (I don’t think it was a coincidence that the specific paper she targeted was co-authored by David Laitin, who was one of the major figures in these disputes).

This isn’t to deny for a moment that an enormous amount still needs to be done. I take Jeff’s main point to be that political science shouldn’t simply respond to the threat to NSF funding with shock and outrage, but instead to think about how it is managing its own shop, and in particular in how it can encourage research that has clearer public relevance. However I think (and I suspect Jeff agrees) that the best way to do this is through pragmatic engagement with a broader public agenda. One interesting example of how this might work is the emerging field of what might be dubbed American political economy, where previously well justified complaints are giving way to a real engagement between quantitative and qualitative political scientists. My instinct is that the creation of a broader ‘public sphere’ of the kind that Perspectives is trying to build (alongside blogs such as this one) will help both to make political science part of broader public argument and to help resolve internal disciplinary factionalism, as methodological disputes give way to more substantive disagreements.

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Working Papers

Some things I think I’ve learned lately (get ‘em here while they last):

The extraordinary economic crisis of the past five years has produced surprisingly ordinary politics. “Political Effects of the Great Recession,” for a special issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on “Effects of the Great Recession.”

When your first book is a field-defining classic, there’s still plenty of room for intellectual growth. ”The Political Education of John Zaller,” for a special issue of Critical Review marking the 20th anniversary of The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion.

Individual members of Congress are more responsive to their constituents’ views than they have been in a century—but Congress as a whole is less representative. “Representation” (with Joshua Clinton and John Geer), for the Oxford Handbook of American Political Development.

Mo Fiorina’s party identification is shaped more by McGovern, Watergate, and Carter than by Bush and Obama. ”A Generational Model of Political Learning” (with Simon Jackman), for a special issue of Electoral Studies on “New Approaches in Age, Period, Cohort Analysis.”

When voters cannot tell the difference between effort and luck, leaders are likely to exert less effort on their behalf. Now with a formal model of political accountability! ”Why Shark Attacks are Bad for Democracy” (with Christopher Achen).

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Please Support National Science Foundation Funding of Political Science Research

At right, I have added a widget that allows you to support NSF funding of political science research.  You can also go here.  The Senate is back in session on Monday and will consider Senator Coburn’s amendment defunding the political science program at the NSF (more on that here).  There is some back-channel communication from Capitol Hill that gives reason to be concerned that Coburn may succeed.  The APSA and COSSA are, I believe, reaching out in more direct ways—via their own letter, lobbying, and efforts to mobilize groups like the AAAS and university presidents.  Consider this petition just one small thing you can do.

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

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.

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Democratic Response to Cantor Defends Social Science Funding

From Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology:

I’m starting to feel like a broken record but I’m just going to keep saying it – the social sciences are important.  They help us understand what we do, why we do what we do, and how we can do things better.  There is almost always a social sciences angle in the most important issues of the day like energy, national security, and health.  For example, in disaster preparedness and response preparation, the social sciences helps us understand how people respond to risk, and how they respond differently to different ways of communicating risk. This knowledge helps emergency management planners develop the most effective strategies for keeping members of their communities safe from natural disasters.  And then once the immediate danger has passed, social science helps us understand how individuals and communities respond to these highly stressful events over the long term.

The Political Science Program at NSF, funded at roughly $11 million per year, advances knowledge and understanding of citizenship, government, and politics.  Data from national longitudinal surveys help us understand the changing face of our own democracy and what can be done to promote civic engagement and voting among the general public.  I firmly believe that it is in the interest of the American taxpayers that their leaders understand what their constituents believe and why, and attend to removing barriers to participation in our great democracy.  Political science research supported by NSF also helps us understand foreign societies and governments, including the societies and governments of countries such as Iran and China.  When the leaders of countries such as Iran posture about war and nuclear weapons, is it not in the interest of the American taxpayer that our own nation’s leaders understand what is motivating those foreign leaders and where we have the most leverage to negotiate or take other actions?

I do agree with the Majority Leader that biomedical research is critically important to the health and well-being of our citizens. But I do not agree that federally funded research should be considered on an either/or basis.  Biomedical research is important, social science research is important, energy research is important, and defense research is important.  The list goes on and on. We need to be discussing how to fund all of this important scientific research, not how to get rid of it.


The press release is here.

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Why Study Social Science

Kindred Winecoff, himself a political scientist, writes in reaction to my earlier post:

This is an opportunity for the social sciences to demonstrate their value by making a clear, coherent argument. Simply pointing to research on topics of possible public interest (as Sides does) is not enough… it must be accompanied by an argument that that research is more deserving of public funding than something else. So far I have not seen such an argument made. I have seen social scientists act like any other interest group: they want public spending on programs that benefit them because those programs benefit them. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a bit distasteful to equate common rent-seeking behavior with a broad public interest. If the social sciences deserve public funding they ought to be able to make the case on its merits. In a way, Cantor is challenging us to think like civically-minded social scientists.

As I responded to him and to a commenter, I think I and others have tried to make an argument that goes beyond “rent-seeking” and, indeed, we’ve tried over and over again.  But let me try to engage this question again, and at the broadest possible level.

We study social science because social phenomena affect people’s lives in profound ways.  If you want to start with Cantor’s focus—physical illness and death—then social phenomena are tremendously important.  Social ills—poverty, lack of formal education, family dysfunction, ineffective governments, wars—are associated with and arguably cause a great deal of physical illness and death.  You can do a lot to fight malaria with medicine, and we need new and better medicines to do so, but those treatments aren’t going to go very far in some developing countries—or at least as far—without more stable political institutions and more effective civil society organizations.  Doctors in labs can create a miracle drug.  However, that drug won’t do that much good if you can’t get it to needy populations because roaming militias set up roadblocks and kill NGO workers. If social and political scientists can figure out how to help create stable democratic institutions, how to help resolve civil wars, whether and how foreign intervention can help ameliorate conflict, etc., etc., then they will help save lives—both on their own and in concert with other scientists who focus on new medicines, or more efficient cookstoves, or new ways to filter drinking water, or what have you.

Now let’s leave killing and death behind, since much social science isn’t about that.  Social phenomena also matter in less dramatic ways, but in ways that still make people’s lives profoundly better or worse.  Consider this partial list:

  • Families.  What makes families more or less successful?   What makes marriages more successful?  What makes them fail?  What are the effects of divorce?  Does it hurt the children of divorce?  How much, in what ways, and for how long?  A medical doctor can treat the effects of family dysfunction and divorce—say, with anti-depressants or therapy and so on—but we can learn and know more about how to prevent some of this dysfunction from doing social science.
  • Schools. What are effective means of educating children?  What makes for good teachers?  How can we measure and evaluate teaching and learning?  How can we overcome inequalities in educational achievement created by socioeconomic status and other factors?  The “hard” sciences and medicine might be able to help a bit here, but these too are mostly questions for social science.
  • Economies.  Fundamentally, what makes them grow or shrink?  Few things are as central to people’s quality of life as economic prosperity.  Here again, there is synergy with, say, medicine: getting sick affects your ability to be economically productive.  But doctors are not going to be shed much light on this question.  Economists and other social scientists can.
  • Mass Media.  The information conveyed through mass media—cultural, political, and otherwise—can profoundly influence how we understand the world.  How is that information produced?  What are the incentives and norms that govern media organizations?  How does that information affect people?  How does that information help or hurt people—for example, by dismantling or reinforcing stereotypes, or by mitigating or fomenting outright violence?  Social scientists spend a lot of time trying to figure this out.
  • Attitudes.  Why do people develop particular attitudes about social and political phenomena?  How does those attitudes affect subsequent behavior?  Whether people like or dislike social groups, for example, has an impact on the quality of life for those groups.  So we must understand the origins and evolution of attitudes like prejudice.
  • Social networks.  The networks which people are embedded—which encompass families and schools as well as other institutions—can affect many things about them.  Whether they are healthy, whether they are prejudiced, whether they can survive natural disasters, and so on.

That is just a quick jaunt through some of the foundational topics in sociology, economics, psychology, and other social sciences.  I should say that the politics, and therefore political science, is immanent in all of those.  The policies that governments produce can affect families—for example, by providing child care subsidies, or by allowing same-sex couples to be married and build their own families.  Politics also affects the economy, needless to say.  Witness the gains or losses of wealth that could be attributed to government stimulus, to austerity, to debt ceiling debates, to financial crises.  How political institutions function—and the roles played by voters, leaders, reporters, activists—will also end up affecting people’s lives in myriad other ways.  Whether they live in poverty, whether they get parental leave when their kids are born, how easy it is to buy a house, how long they sit in traffic, how much tax they pay, how good their health care is, and so on and on.

My problem with this laser focus on the hard sciences and on medicine is that it pretends that people’s quality of life simply depends on physical phenomena—how fast computers are or how much their knee hurts and so on.   That’s simply not true.  Much of people’s happiness—indeed, including whether they have access to computers or can endure a physical malady—depends on social phenomena.  If I wanted to turn the tables, it wouldn’t be hard to find research in medicine and the “hard” sciences that seems much further removed from people’s daily lives—and their actual happiness living those lives—than is much social science.

But none of that speaks to trade-offs: why should the government fund social science over, say, medicine?  At one level, that’s not a fair question, because it assumes a zero-sum game that doesn’t necessarily exist or need to exist.  Why not fund both social science and the “hard” sciences by reducing agricultural subsidies?  But I’ll grant the question for the sake of argument.

One answer I’d give is that it’s very hard to determine the value of any research ahead of time.  It’s hard because any one research project is narrow.  It’s hard because you can’t anticipate how one project might inform later ones.  It’s hard because some funding goes to create public goods—like large datasets—that many others will use, and those myriad projects also cannot be anticipated.  It’s hard because some research won’t work, and we can’t know that ahead of time.  (Commenter Eric L. makes this point as well.)   For example, my mom worked on a multi-million dollar NIH grant to see whether certain vitamins would reduce the risk of a second stroke among stroke victims.  Null effect.  Here’s the JAMA article.  Easy to say, “What a waste.  I can’t believe Sides’s mom got all that dough.  Should have given those millions of dollars to political scientists studying civil war.”  But how can you know?  And even if the medical research did work, it’s very hard to measure its impact relative to other research in other fields.   If a new drug extends the lives of patients with a particular kind of terminal, but rare, pancreatic cancer by 2 months, what is the value of that relative to research that shows how to improve the reading abilities of thousands or even millions of children?

You can’t answer questions of relative benefit very easily.  And thus to say that entire fields of study are worth $0 in federal funding but other fields of study are worth millions or billions of dollars reflects very little about the actual or potential real-world impact of those fields’ research programs.  Even a more nuanced claim—the marginal impact of every dollar spent on medical research is greater than the marginal impact of every dollar spend on social science—is hard to test.  Nor is it clear why the most impact wouldn’t be attained not by doing zero-sum calculations between sprawling and disparate fields like “medicine” and “social science” but by funding only the most promising medical research and only the most promising social science research.  Alas, then we’re back to figuring out what is “promising” a priori.

Given these challenges, what the federal government does do and should do is allow its elected leaders to make decisions about how to allocate resources across multiple fields of study—via funding of the NIH, NSF, etc.—and then allow processes of peer review by experts in those fields to determine which specific projects seem most promising.  Eric Cantor and others are perfectly within their rights—indeed, it is their job—to decide how much funding these agencies receive or whether they receive any funding.  It is also their job to exercise oversight over these agencies to ensure there is minimal fraud and waste. Scientists are not entitled to federal funding any more than farmers or highways.

My point is simply that what political leaders seek to do—what good government seeks to do—is make the lives of citizens better.  Social phenomena are central to the quality of our lives.  Thus we gain from funding the disciplines that illuminate those phenomena.

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Eric Cantor Renews the Call to End Federal Funding of Political and Social Science

Eric Cantor today:

There is an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research. Doing all we can to facilitate medical breakthroughs for people … should be a priority. We can and must do better.

This includes cutting unnecessary red tape in order to speed up the availability of life saving drugs and treatments and reprioritizing existing federal research spending. Funds currently spent by the government on social science – including on politics of all things – would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.


Quoted here.  Good thing that disease, mortality, etc. bear no relationship to political institutions.  Good thing that there is no politics in whether and how drugs and medical treatments are developed.

To be less sarcastic and more constructive, here is Evan Lieberman’s book on how ethnic politics shaped national responses to AIDS.  Here is Dan Carpenter’s work on the Food and Drug Administration.  That’s just off the top of my head.

The broader point is that Cantor’s goal, curing disease and saving lives, can be better accomplished by including social and political science alongside the “hard” sciences and medicine.

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The Elusive Mandate: Searching for Meaning in Presidential Elections

That’s the title of a lecture I delivered recently at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The talk—an opinionated overview of political science research on American presidential elections—is now posted on the Radcliffe Institute’s website. Here’s the summary:

Almost 50 years ago, eminent Harvard political scientist V. O. Key Jr. described in his book The Responsible Electorate an electorate “moved by concern about central and relevant questions of public policy, of governmental performance, and of executive personality.” Bartels assesses how well Key’s optimistic portrait of the American electorate holds up in light of the subsequent half-century of electoral research. He concludes that presidential election outcomes are mostly determined by factors unrelated to central and relevant questions of public policy and governmental performance.


There’s nothing about the 2012 election, except to note that it was quite ordinary.

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China’s Chappaquiddick

I’m just wondering: has there been research into the frequency of scandals such as this that have major political consequences. Here I’m not talking about congressmembers that get caught with a dead girl or a live boy (as the saying goes) and don’t get reelected; I’m thinking of Chappaquiddick-like events (although not necessarily involving drinking and car crashes) with national implications.

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How to teach things we don’t agree with?

This discussion arose in the context of statistics teaching:

April Galyardt writes:

I’m teaching my first graduate class this semester. It’s intro stats for graduate students in the college of education. Most of the students are first year PhD students. Though, there are a number of master’s students who are primarily in-service teachers. The difficulties with teaching an undergraduate intro stats course are still present, in that mathematical preparation and phobia vary widely across the class.

I’ve been enjoying the class and the students, but I’d like your take on an issue I’ve been thinking about. How do I balance teaching the standard methods, like hypothesis testing, that these future researchers have to know because they are so standard, with discussing the problems with those methods (e.g. p-value as a measure of sample size, and the decline effect, not to mention multiple testing and other common mistakes). It feels a bit like saying “Ok here’s what everybody does, but really it’s broken” and then there’s not enough time to talk about other ideas.

My reply: One approach is to teach the classical methods in settings where they are appropriate. I think some methods are just about never appropriate (for example, so-called exact tests), but in chapters 2-5 of my book with Jennifer, we give lots of applied examples of basic statistical methods. One way to discuss the problems of a method is to show an example where the method makes sense and an example where it doesn’t.

But I imagine the same sort of thing must arise in political science courses all the time. Do any of you have the experience of having to teach something that you think is misleading or wrong? What do you think of the suggested strategy, “show an example where the method makes sense and an example where it doesn’t”?

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