Former Political Scientist to Congress: Please Defund Political Science

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

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.

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Greg Ferenstein writes about public policy for TechCrunch.

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