Political scientists crying politics at their peril

Posted: June 08, 2012

By Charles Lane

The Republican-dominated House has passed an amendment to cut off funding for political science research through the National Science Foundation, and you and I should be outraged.

It's not the money, of course: Only $11 million of the NSF's $7 billion-plus budget goes to poli sci research. It's the principle of the thing. We can't let politicians like Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who sponsored the ban, decide what constitutes science worthy of federal support.

Or so we are told.

Christopher Zorn, a political scientist at Penn State, writes that it would be "dangerous" if "individual members of Congress should sit in judgment over individual programs of scientific research." Eleven political science department chairs from blue-chip universities, headed by Nolan McCarty of Princeton, have published a manifesto bemoaning the loss of "important public benefits" if the House bill becomes law.

But why shouldn't Congress, or its "individual members," define science for purposes of federal funding? That's what Congress did when it decided in the late 1960s to include political science in the NSF.

It horrifies Zorn that Rep. Flake would override the NSF's "peer review system" and the "hundreds of very smart people" who participate in it. "Politicization of the scientific process," he cries.

I would have thought that the politicization comes from the political science academy's dependence on federal money in the first place. He who pays the piper calls the tune — and in our democracy, Congress pays the piper.

People like Flake, though ideological, are accountable to the taxpayers. Nobody elected the "hundreds of very smart people" who have grown accustomed to distributing the public's money.

As for the great public benefits from NSF-funded political science research, I'm agnostic. 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 nonfederal support.

To the first, the answer is obviously yes. Flake's amendment doesn't even cut the NSF's total budget. Rather, it shifts the political science money to other areas, such as physics, engineering, and chemistry.

As for the second question, Flake notes that most of the poli sci money has gone to universities with endowments of more than $1 billion. 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 science; the costs 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. And in these fields, researchers can test their hypotheses under controlled conditions.

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 hypotheses about society usually can't be proved or disproved by experimentation. Society is not a laboratory.

The NSF's budget includes $247 million for social sciences. At a time of trillion-dollar deficits, and possible cuts to defense, food stamps, and other vital programs, this is a luxury we can live without.

In their open letter, McCarty and his colleagues actually boast of an unspecified NSF-backed study that explored "the political factors that lead to excessive spending by state or national governments." I can only assume it was a paper about dubious programs in the federal budget, and the special-interest groups that defend them with self-serving arguments.

Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post's editorial board.

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