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May 15, 2012


Sorry, I don't agree. Flake hasn't proposed that the government not fund political science, but only that the National Science Foundation not do so. The word "science" isn't enough. There may be value in, e.g., political science, social science, actuarial science, creation science, and library science. However, these are not the kind of science and engineering that the public expects the National Science Foundation to support. I've seen warnings that the US is falling behind China because we have fewer engineers, but nobody worries if we have fewer political scientists.

Should the government support political science at all? If there were no shortage of money, my answer would be, "Sure." There's value there. However, given unsustainable deficits, big cuts are inevitable. Political science needs to demonstrate that it's more worthy of support than other areas. Can it be shown that political science has more value than public transportation, airline safety, ObamaCare? Social Security? Welfare? Unemployment insurance? Defense? Environmental protection?

Until recently, all those sucking the government teat could band together as political allies, jointly favoring increased government spending. But, that day is over. Every group receiving government largesse is at war with every other group receiving government largesse.


First, I would note that political science is being singled out. Flake is not targeting behavioral/decision science as a whole. Further you are treating this as an either or proposition; either political science gets completely axed or some other possibly more vital area will be similarly axed. Obviously, this is not the case. I think that this is clearly a political stunt. Political science is an easy target because research is often politically controversial (especially amongst republicans).

To the above commenter (David in Cal),

Yet, this amendment actually saves no money, as admitted by Flake himself -- so your point is moot.

If the goal is saving money, then why target one particular discipline? Sociology and Econ are both awarded more funds than Political Science, even though some would argue that a science of the social world, including economics, is totally impossible. Indeed, the fact that there are multiple, competing economic theories about such things as the cause and length of the Great Depression, or the current economic crisis, or the proper role of government during downturns shows just how "soft" and "uncertain" the so-called "queen of the social sciences" really is. The point being --- why not fair and across the board cuts to all the social sciences, rather than targeting one based on some Congressman's bias and attempt to create controversy in a naked attempt at votes? Something that might actually save money.

Also, your argument about recipients of government largesse banding together is derived directly from political science and economics --- indeed, social science has a often unseen impact on framing the terms of political debate. Suggest you read Olson (1965), "The Logic of Collective Action," and Olson (1982) "Rise and Decline of Nations." F.A. Hayak's work is another good source about the causes and consequences of interest groups. More contemporaneously, James Q. Wilson's ideas have had enormous impact on modern politics and government. To paraphrase Keynes, "even pragmatic men who imagine themselves governed only by practicality are usually indebted to some long dead economist."

But returning to the point --- the political science budget at NSF is very small compared to all your examples, less than one-tenth of one percent. The returns, while not immediately obvious, are more than worth it. By your same logic, we should cut all basic science efforts that yield no immediate and public return, including those in basic physics and biology. You bring up engineers, and that's fine, as application is critically important. But basic research in all fields has been squelched over the years due to exactly these same arguments.

Chris -- I agree with you that it would be better if the NSF cut funding across the board for all social sciences. Perhaps Flake focused on Political Science because that field is getting more NSF money than other social sciences.

You accuse me of wanting to cut certain basic science research "by my logic". On the contrary, my logic is that all NSF money should be spent on what the public would consider "real" science. It's Brendan and yourself you want to cut "real" science research. If Flake's bill were to pass, the NSF would spend more money on "real" science.

Jones -- I don't want to see political science get completely axed, nor has Flake proposed that. Universities already support political science research by paying their faculty a full-time salary for a part-time teaching load. So, researcher time is already being supported.

Furthermore, as Flake pointed out, three-quarters of the NSF political science funds go to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion. These universities have enough money to provide support to poltical science research themselves, without swiping it from hard science research. My impression is that a lot political science research isn't that expensive, because it uses statistics that have already been collected.

Political scientists might also be able get support by writing books about their results, by getting grants or contracts with organizations that have an interest in their results.

Arguments in support of Flake's proposal here and here, From the former:

We may wonder why political science and not anthropology. I guess the first answer is that Congressman Flake is a political scientist and thus is beginning to cut in the areas he knows best. But the bigger issue is that these cuts are just the beginning of a desperately needed rethinking of what the federal government should be spending money on at a time of coming austerity.

The beauty of the American system is the dispersion of power. The federal government does not control all the levers of power or all the money in the USA. If the NSF cannot or does not fund a study, those who feel the need for that study have plenty of other pots to dip their hands into. There are a myriad of foundations and universities that support an enormous amount of social science research. The issue is not that necessary research may not get done, but that there will now be one fewer pot. That is sad for political scientists, but not a tragedy.

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