Former Political Scientist to Congress: Please Defund Political Science

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Eric Cantor and his ilk are right: Taxpayers shouldn't pay for research that doesn't benefit the public.

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Yale's Harkness Tower is not actually made out of ivory. (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

The National Science Foundation spent $200,000 on a study of why congressmen make "vague" statements. That money could have gone towards life-saving cancer research. The same could have been done with the $750,000 spent studying the "sacred values" involved in cultural conflict and the $50,000 devoted to the study of how congressmen bargain over legislation.

This sort of research is what compels politicians to propose cutting the roughly $11 million in NSF cash that funds Political Science research. The latest to do so is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who made his plea during a major speech on Tuesday. In May, then-Rep. Jeff Flake (now a senator) introduced a bill that would do the same.

"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," Cantor said Tuesday. "Funds currently spent by the government on social science -- including on politics of all things -- would be better spent helping find cures to diseases."

I agree. After four years of desperately searching in vain for how my degree could make the world a better place, the lack of real-world impact convinced me to leave a Ph.D. program in political science. Nor am I alone.

"We're kidding ourselves if we think this research typically has the obvious public benefit we claim for it," admitted Jeffrey C. Isaac, an Indiana University professor, in 2009. "We political scientists can and should do a better job of making the public relevance of our work clearer and of doing more relevant work."

Critics of defunding, such as The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, argue that scientists -- not the government -- are better judges of which research deserves funding. While it's true that many of the most influential political scientists have attempted to steer their colleagues toward relevance, the vast majority will have no reason to change their navel-gazing ways until they are forced to seek funding from organizations that directly benefit from their research.

The problem is that modern-day "political science" is rarely related to public policy or diplomacy at all. The scientific study of politics is the hyper-analytic mathematical, psychological, and anthropological study of civic behavior. "Radical Moderation: Recapturing Power in Two-Party Parliamentary Systems" is the title of one recent article in the prestigious American Journal of Political Science. It's a quantitative study of how a political party's reputation persists in between elections for countries with non-presidential systems.

During a dinner for a distinguished professor who also served as a UN consultant, I asked our guest if she ever witnessed any actual impact of political science research. She literally laughed out loud.

The study of political reputation, congressional dialogue, or culture values is not entirely useless, but the discipline of political science lacks a system for turning abstract research into practical outcomes. The physical sciences, for instance, are inundated with esoteric mathematical and biological models that bear little resemblance to the real world. Yet many universities have entire sections of the campus dedicated to helping scientists commercialize their work.

In political science, the opposite it true. Joseph Nye, a Harvard political scientist and former assistant secretary of Defense, lamented, "Scholars are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world, and in many departments a focus on policy can hurt one's career. Advancement comes faster for those who develop mathematical models, new methodologies or theories expressed in jargon that is unintelligible to policymakers. A survey of articles published over the lifetime of the American Political Science Review found that about one in five dealt with policy prescription or criticism in the first half of the century, while only a handful did so after 1967."

I experienced this firsthand as an idealistic 24-year-old graduate student. Realizing that I needed to develop close personal ties with the policy makers I eventually wanted to help, I began moonlighting as a journalist while in school. During a trip, when I moderated a conference panel with a congressman about how technology can improve the democratic process, I received an email from a well-intentioned professor scolding me for taking time away from research. "You really need to focus on your academic work and stop wasting time on these sorts of excursions," he wrote.

As a result, even the potentially useful research gets overlooked by policymakers who have little contact with experts from the discipline. During a dinner my university threw for a distinguished Harvard professor who also served as a United Nations consultant, I asked our guest if she ever witnessed any actual impact of political-science research. She literally laughed out loud, and regaled the now-perturbed table of academics about her experience with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had apparently ignored all the academic experts during his country's transition to democracy and, instead, decided on the structure of government in a tent with his peers.

Part of the problem is that the culture of political science exalts researchers who discover timeless, fundamental precepts of good governance and not those who tackle timely issues, such as healthcare or education. As a result, it's exceedingly difficult to research that is both statistically rigorous and has practical relevance.

For instance, one of the most influential pieces of practical research in the last half-century found that building strong communities, where neighbors have frequent informal interactions with one another, dramatically boosts social welfare, as measured by the health, happiness, and governmental effectiveness of a city. The study took Harvard's Robert Putnam 25 years, which was necessary to observe how natural variation in communities all around the entire country of Italy affected the lives of its 50-plus million citizens.

Quite reasonably, most researchers are squeamish about dedicating half their career to one study and simply avoid the challenge of relevant research. Instead, they turn to clever mathematical models that check their research box but do little to aid real-world public policy. Appropriately enough, Putnam himself has been an outspoken critic of his own discipline and once told me that he begs his colleagues to do research that passes the "mother-in-law test": You ought to be able to explain to your mother-in-law why you're working on it.

There are political scientists who do worthwhile research in less than 25 years, but most don't work in academia. The World Bank is helping to develop online tools for direct democracy, which allows third-world citizens to make decisions on their own local budgets and redistribute public services more fairly. Free from the compulsion to publish in peer-reviewed journals, non-academic political scientists are tasked with solving very specific problems.

Moreover, political science also has an important role to play in educating the next generation of policymakers, citizens, and diplomats. However, as a graduate teaching assistant, I found that the mere existence of Ivory Tower political scientists was undermining higher education.

"I failed bio-chem twice, so I switched to poli sci," one of my students admitted to me. The social sciences at my university, especially political science, were a lazy oasis for clever medical-school-bound students looking to boost their GPAs. A professor of pharmaceutical chemistry called this the "pre-med game", where mediocre physical-science students would switch to the social sciences in a cheap attempt to gain a leg up on the medical school competition.

While many professors don't care much about teaching, they do need a certain threshold of students to sign up for their classes: Low attendance can affect both the department's budget and the professor's own salary. As a result, social science departments have an incentive to offer easier courses that siphon off students from other schools. Indeed, during a candid moment, one professor admitted to me that most of his colleagues view teaching simply as a way to "subsidize" their research. Since career intellectuals lack the experience to teach applicable material, departments are stuck with overly academic classes that leave students with a mountain of debt and no employable skills.

Worse, my old department actively shunned the few journalists and practitioners who were brought in as part-time lecturers. Though their classes were often the most popular, lecturers faced the constant threat of research professors who lobbied the department administrators to fire them -- and drag reluctant students back in to more scientific courses.

Sadly, the world is in need of useful political science research. Much of the Middle East is or will be in transition to democracy. These governments, which have a clean slate to design great political systems, could desperately use the research on how to build consensus-oriented democracies, which are known to be far more minority-friendly than the traditional two-party systems.

Political scientists have the knowledge to solve all sorts of modern day political problems. But they don't have the incentive. So, Congress, please defund my discipline - or at least put someone outside the academy in charge of doling out the money. It is the only way we will see this theoretically beautiful social science put to work for the betterment of mankind.

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Greg Ferenstein writes about public policy for TechCrunch.

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