Public Inquiry and Democracy: Should the National Science Foundation Fund Political Science Research?

Public Inquiry and Democracy: Should the National Science Foundation Fund Political Science Research?

Senator Tom Coburn has introduced an amendment to prohibit NSF money from funding most political science research. But not all political scientists are upset. We should take their criticisms seriously—and still oppose the amendment.

National Science Foundation building in Arlington, Virginia

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.

With these words, furnished courtesy of U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), the U.S. Senate acted by voice vote this week to politically circumscribe and de-authorize the funding of almost all NSF-support political science research in the United States. The rationale presented by Coburn for this move was simple: the federal budget contains lots of waste, and NSF funding of political science is a waste of money. Coburn has been crusading against the NSF Political Science Program for years, and with a zeal that seems wildly out of proportion to the amount of money in question—approximately $11 million out of an annual NSF budget of $7.8 billion, or less than 0.2 percent. His opposition is no doubt ideological, in the sense that he is an avid proponent of fiscal austerity when it comes to U.S. government support for social, cultural, and educational programs, and in the sense that he clearly has a particular animus toward political science.

But beneath these ideological dispositions is a particular understanding of political science—that it is not, in his words, “a real science,” and that it produces nothing of value to society sufficient to warrant government support. It is for this reason that Coburn continually cites the technological advances that have been generated by NSF-funded research in the natural sciences and contrasts these palpable advances with the scholastic sounding titles of NSF-funded political science research. And it is clearly for this reason that the Coburn amendment contains a caveat: NSF funding of political science research is acceptable whenever this research can be certified “as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

It seems very clear that the move to defund political science is linked to a broader conservative political agenda targeting many aspects of science and the humanities, and rooted in a hostility toward intellectuals; that it hypocritically singles out the relatively small amounts of the NSF budget spent on political science; and that it rests on a range of specious assumptions and claims. One is the notion that most important NSF-funded natural science is technologically driven applied science. This is obviously false, and the distinction between theoretical and applied science is well established within the natural sciences—and scientists well understand that the practical advances that science makes possible are only enabled by theoretical advances. Another is the notion that the only way to be a “real” science is to be a science like physics or chemistry. And the third, and most serious, specious assumption is that the principal scientific and social value of American political science is its ability to promote the “national security” and “economic interests” of the United States.

All of the sciences—physics and chemistry and sociology and economics as well as political science—generate huge amounts of high-level theoretical scholarship that uses specialized language and concepts and addresses problems in ways that will not seem self-evident to citizens who are not scientists. That is what science is. In this regard, science is no different than the arts and humanities—which have also come under attack by conservatives. Political science is no more esoteric, removed from ordinary language, abstract, scholastic, or irrelevant than any other major academic discipline. And at bottom, the logic of the Coburn amendment cuts against any public funding of any form of higher learning and creativity.

So it makes perfect sense that the American Political Science Association—the primary professional association of the U.S. political science discipline—would lobby against the legislative amendment, inform and mobilize its members to vocally oppose the amendment, and critique the amendment. It also makes perfect sense that a range of prominent political science researchers and journal editors—many of them proud recipients of NSF funds—would publicly condemn the move to defund disciplinary research, insisting that political science, as a science, generates important “basic” scientific knowledge about politics that is publicly relevant and useful or at least potentially so.

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.

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.

For a variety of reasons, principled and strategic, this line of response to the Coburn amendment thus seems right to me. It is important for all scholars who care about the integrity of social science research to challenge the Coburn amendment and to defend the autonomy of the NSF in its funding of political science research.

At the same time, there is something disingenuous about the way some political scientists have defended NSF-funded political science as important for democracy. Lobbying and public relations are one thing—one very important thing in a highly constrained interest-group liberal democracy such as the United States—and a serious understanding of the situation is another, and if any people should know this, it is political scientists, as a matter of our experience as well as our training and our scholarly activity. There are at least three ways that the narrative of the seamless connection of political science and the NSF with democracy is problematic.

The first relates to science. For Coburn, real science is an enterprise that generates the kinds of predictive knowledge that allows us to productively transform our world, for example by creating new robots or pharmaceuticals. But the social sciences are not quite like that. Political science ought to be judged in terms of its distinctive civic contributions, my colleagues insist. And they are right. But there’s a problem here, or perhaps an irony: one of the reasons why ignorant politicians like Coburn consider physics and not political science the paradigm of “real science” is because 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. It is this perspective that has justified the specific methods that these scholars have employed and valorized—advanced statistical and formal methods, laboratory experiments, and so on—the extensive resources these methodologically based projects have required, and the status of these inquiries both in the broader society and in the universities and departments.

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.” In short, what is necessary now to defend NSF-funded research is an argument—about the advantages but also the limits of naturalistic approaches to social inquiry, about the importance of publicity and public enlightenment, about the value of democracy—that most NSF-funded research has not been very interested in making. Much of the actual practice of NSF-funded scholars—their teaching, their service activities, some of their writing—has been perfectly consistent with this broad, democratic perspective. Most political science research has taken for granted broad “democratic” values. But the model of science that is typically used to justify NSF-type scientific research has not placed a premium on either deep thinking about democracy or the kinds of public practices of engaged inquiry that might enhance democracy.

The second problem with the narrative of the seamless connection of political science and the NSF with democracy relates to the first: NSF-style political science is not simply wedded to a very particular natural science model, but this model is not universal in political science, and indeed many very distinguished political scientists do not accept this model and in recent years have presented a great many alternatives to it.

This is perhaps why a number of political scientists have dissented from the “official” position that NSF funding is good for political science. Peter Lawler, speaking from the right, has noted that

My objection to NSF funding is simply that political science has failed…in its effort to produce the kind of scientific discoveries the NSF is looking for…Generally, political science does its best work when it begins with the perspectives of the statesman (or political leader) and the citizen and then goes on to refine and enlarge what’s seen about political life by those who are actually engaged in it. The attempt to impose a scientific perspective alien to the phenomena almost always leads us to see a lot less than is really there.

And Jacqueline Stevens, speaking from the left, welcomed the defunding of NSF political science, maintaining that

Many of today’s peer-reviewed studies offer trivial confirmations of the obvious and policy documents filled with egregious, dangerous errors….I look forward to seeing what happens to my discipline and politics more generally once we stop mistaking probability studies and statistical significance for knowledge.

As one of my Facebook friends posted in response to the worries of many fellow political scientists about the NSF: “Good. Now that political science is free of the NSF, maybe it can start to do some good.” Comments such as these are at a diagonal to the mainstream effort to defend NSF funding. Indeed, they are quite hostile toward this effort. 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.

But these concerns are not peripheral to or distractions from “the real business” of practicing political science. They are inextricably linked to the largest framing questions of the discipline: how is our political world organized? How does it distribute power and vulnerability, advantage and disadvantage? In what ways are the structures of our political world linked to and sustained by forms of knowledge and understanding? How do our efforts to better understand and know the political world take their bearings from the world, and reflect back upon that very same world? And finally, how should our efforts “speak to” the world and engage our fellow citizens of the world? In short, what are the challenges to and prospects for democratic self-governance, and how can political science contribute to both understanding and addressing these challenges and realizing the promise of democracy? To say that there is disagreement among political scientists about these things would be a gross understatement. “Political science” does not and cannot speak with one voice, nor can it speak in one way. It is an inherently pluralistic, fractious, and contentious science.

“Political science” does not and cannot speak with one voice, nor can it speak in one way. It is an inherently pluralistic, fractious, and contentious science.

Few political scientists benefit directly from NSF funding and most do work that is not eligible for this kind of funding. Because this funding provides substantial resources to only a small subset of colleagues, it serves to reinforce a hierarchy within the discipline that privileges its more purportedly “scientific” members—who are accorded not simply prestige but research assistance, course release, travel budgets, and broad research support—and thereby under-privileges others. Unfortunately, the “interest group” defense of NSF funding obscures this and thus is deaf to the reasons why many political science colleagues find it difficult to get worked up about threats to NSF-funded research and might even welcome the uncoupling of the NSF from political science. It seems to me that the best and most intellectually authentic way to defend “the relevance of political science” is to frankly acknowledge that it consists of a range of different and often contending perspectives on politics, and to regard the cultivation of public spaces where these differences of perspectives can be synergistically developed and aired as the most important disciplinary challenge. The journal that I edit, Perspectives on Politics, is one such space—there are others—and it is to the credit of the APSA that it created this journal a little more than ten years ago.

While NSF-funded research does produce the benefits the APSA claims it does, the manner in which it produces these benefits is highly mediated. What passes for the most sophisticated “scientific” work among the scholars who do this kind of research tends to be extremely and excessively statistically and mathematically esoteric, inaccessible, and forbidding, and many of the journals that publish this work operate on a natural science model according to which public accessibility and public relevance are not high priorities. As a result, its contribution to “the public good” is very indirect—and occurs when it is engaged and critiqued by other political scientists who write in a more discursive style and tend to publish in more ecumenical journals, where they can inform the tens of thousands of people who teach government courses in high schools, colleges, and universities across the nation.

This broader political science scholarly inquiry and debate does more than furnish vehicles for the dissemination of NSF-funded research. It also serves as the intellectual soil from which this research grows, furnishing broad concepts, problem definitions, and political and policy perspectives that inform the most esoteric political science research. The formal study of legislative politics, for example, is linked to, and parasitic on, broad theories of democratic representation. And highly mathematical analyses of public opinion are connected to theories of democratic citizenship.

In short, the observation that NSF-funded research is important to democracy is true only if one seriously acknowledges—and accords recognition and value to—how it is embedded in the broader streams of research, writing, teaching, and public argumentation that constitute U.S. political science.

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, for the reasons stated above. NSF funding is also crucial to the functioning of the APSA and for the funding of much graduate education in political science, in academic departments and centers across the many research universities in the United States. These are the most important reasons why I strongly support continued NSF-funded political science research.

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. This failure to appreciate how their “science” is experienced by other colleagues, and to recognize (and own) that the discipline has been politically constructed in ways that are not inevitable and that privilege some over others, is unfortunate for the cause of NSF funding and for the discipline more broadly.

It is obvious that the defunding of political science is a very minor development in the broader fiscal crisis of the U.S. state. It is also obvious that for Coburn and his allies, clearer and more persuasive evidence that political science research is good for democracy would probably only further incline them to oppose the funding of such research—for they are not especially interested in robust public inquiry and debate about the deepening of U.S. democracy. In the grand scheme, what the institutions of political science do or might do better at this very moment is unlikely to make a real difference. But this crisis is not simply a “teachable moment” for the discipline; it is a learning moment, and how the discipline processes and moves from the crisis will be important to its future vitality. As we move forward, we ought to recognize that political scientists have over time constructed a scholarly world that is often forgetful of the true source of our work—the public problems of our common world. And if it seems to others that our work has lost public meaning, it is incumbent on us, especially if we wish those others to support the funding of our work, to make the public meaning of our work clearer and more accessible and thus more publicly valuable and valued. This requires a greater mindfulness about the way we frame our work, the way we do our research, the way that we write about this research, and the venues through which we seek to disseminate and publicize our ideas.

The most compelling feature of political science is not its specific and “useful” research “products,” but the fact that its practitioners are a pluralistic community of scholars dedicated to free and critical inquiry. And while our teaching and research is “productive” of diverse (and contestable) social benefits, its primary benefit, its primary value, is the value of inquiry itself. In a democratic society, what could be more valuable than serious analysis of and disagreement about the broad structures of political life? A vibrant public sphere of political science that reaches beyond itself to shed light on public problems and their potential solutions can help sustain that inquiry.

I’d like to thank the following for their helpful comments and criticisms: Adrian Florea, Evan Goldstein, Russ Hanson, Bob Ivie, Mary Katzenstein, Peter Katzenstein, Michael Kennedy, Jenny Mansbridge, Margot Morgan, and Bill Scheuerman.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He has written four books, edited two others, and published over seventy scholarly articles and essays. He is also the current editor in chief of Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere, a flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, and a member of the APSA Council. In this essay he speaks only for himself.