Political Scientists Acknowledge Need to Make Stronger Case for Their Field

September 03, 2013

Back in March, Congress limited federal support for political-science research by the National Science Foundation to projects that promote national security or American economic interests. That decision was a victory for Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma who has long aimed to eliminate all NSF grants for political science, arguing that unlike the hard sciences it rarely produces concrete benefits to society.

Congress's action has led to soul searching within the discipline about how effective academics have been in conveying the value of their work to the public. It has also revived a longstanding debate among political scientists about the shift toward more statistically sophisticated, mathematically esoteric research, and its usefulness outside of academe. Those discussions were out front at the annual conference of the American Political Science Association, held here last week.

Rogers M. Smith, a political-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of 13 members of a panel that discussed the controversy over NSF money for political-science studies. He put the problem bluntly: "We need to make a better case for ourselves."

Few on the panel, in fact, seemed to think that political science had done a good job on that front. The association has created a task force—led by Arthur Lupia, a political-science professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor—to improve public perceptions of political science's value. He said his colleagues could learn from organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which holds special sessions for the news media at its annual conference to explain the work of its members to the public.

Different Types of Research

The NSF's budget for political science is a relatively small amount of money, about $10-million a year. It has also come under fire by some in the discipline for favoring highly quantitative work. In the past couple of years some political scientists have argued that society has not, in fact, benefited much from that kind of scholarship.

"The government—disproportionately—supports research that is amenable to statistical analyses and models even though everyone knows the clean equations mask messy realities that contrived data sets and assumptions don't, and can't, capture," wrote Jacqueline Stevens, a political-science professor at Northwestern University, in an op-ed essay in The New York Times last summer, when another effort to eliminate NSF funds for the discipline was under way.

She and another critic, Peter A. Lawler, a professor of government of Berry College, were on the panel that discussed the NSF controversy. While Ms. Stevens said that the science foundation could fix the problem by distributing grants by lottery, Mr. Lawler argued that it's a failed marriage: The NSF is seeking scientific discoveries that political science simply can't provide.

"Scholarly political science doesn't have the reliable record of producing the kind of useful scientific discoveries that the NSF is all about," he said, noting its poor record in forecasting such events as the collapse of the Soviet Union or the rise of the Arab Spring.

Persuading the Public

While only a small minority of the association’s members felt that NSF support was not necessary or desirable, according to a survey last summer sponsored by the organization, persuading the public of the value of their discipline was ranked among members' highest priorities, said Kay Lehman Schlozman, a political-science professor at Boston College who was a co-author of the survey.

How exactly to do that remains a challenge for the association. Efforts are under way to work with other disciplinary associations and foundations to hone the message that social science matters.

Rep. Daniel W. Lipinski, a Democrat from Illinois who sits on the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, warned that the questions being raised by Congress about political science and other publicly financed research projects are not going to go away. Academics should call their senators and representatives to express their concern, he said during the panel discussion.

Mr. Lipinski also cited the High Quality Research Act, a bill circulated this year in draft form that would add a layer of scrutiny to all NSF-financed research. Written by Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, the bill would require, among other things, that such research "advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare."

Since the restrictions on NSF funds were approved, the association has stepped up its efforts to broadcast research and projects by its members that are at risk under the narrower requirements. For example, the Ralph Bunch Summer Institute, which is designed to encourage more minority students to enter political science, suspended its 2013 summer program because its mission did not fit the requirements.

John M. Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University and a contributor to the Monkey Cage blog, told the audience that when he sat down with Congressional staff members and asked whether political scientists should be offering a broad defense of the discipline or specific examples of its value, they said they just needed good examples.

"The good news," Mr. Sides concluded, "is that we don't have to answer a question we're not very good at answering: Who are we?"

Clarification (9/3/2013, 10:05 a.m.): A description of a survey result, originally described as a small minority of association members who agreed with Peter Lawler's views, was clarified as a small minority who felt that NSF support was not necessary or desirable.