The First Casualty of the National Science Foundation Funding Cut for Political Science


If you belong to the American Political Science Association, you probably got the email announcing the last-minute closure of the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute because of the Coburn (left) amendment removing political science funding from the National Science Foundation (US). Undergraduate programming like this is obviously pretty vulnerable. It doesn’t have the cachet of high-profile, ‘big think’ research. But it does obviously endanger the discipline in the long-term by cutting into our future replacements (almost certainly one purpose of the amendment). It would be no surprise if some of this summer’s bright students got turned off our discipline because of these shenanigans, or missed a seminar or session this summer that might have helped them nail-down a good research question and so on. In brief, this cut is the real deal after years of GOP threats to our discipline, and that sucks.


We should probably start keeping track of what will get lost. It would be helpful in order to fight in the future for funding restoration. For myself, I worry most  about cuts to training programs like Bunche. I participated in the Institute for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research last summer, and it was super. It certainly made me a better political scientist, which I guess would upset Coburn, and IQMR does get NSF funding. And then of course, there is the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, which I would imagine gets NSF support.

This kind of training is the thankless, unexciting ‘grunt work’ of political science – teaching method and rigor that will not look like politics at all to most people. It will be hard, as Brian argues, to stretch the national security opt-out of the Coburn amendment to cover such programming. But this training is actually really important. Method and discipline is what separates us from journalism and such, which Coburn’s flip remarks, about political science doing what CNN and MSNBC do, prove he doesn’t understand. Indeed, I am starting to think the GOP doesn’t really know what science is at all (here or here). Among other reasons why Coburn apparently proposed cutting NSF is because it once gave Paul Krugman a grant. That is a credible reason? If so, the Tea Party really is off its rocker. Krugman is a Nobel Prize winner; it is actually prestigious for NSF to say they were involved with his research. Come on, Coburn. This is just raw ideology now.

To push back, my sense is what we need to do two things somehow:

1. Find a way to communicate better with the rest of the world, especially with people in practical politics who wonder why they can’t read even 5 pages of the APSR or ISQ. That doesn’t mean we should dumb down our work or turn it into Foreign Affairs, but there is a clearly a gap growing between us and the wider tax-paying public and its officials who support our research. If we can’t close that, we’ll frequently be fighting a rearguard on funding. A clear marker of this gap is that we have top have a entire journal devoted to bridging that divide. So some of Coburn’s animus may simply come from frustrated unintelligibility. This is not exactly a new point of course. Walt’s been saying it for awhile on his blog. Here is a publishing officer from Sage making a similar point.

Maybe one way might be to talk up those (few) ideas we do have that get close to ‘science’ and ‘laws’ to counteract the growing conservative notion that we practice ‘junk science.’ For example, the democratic peace, which arguably is the intellectual foundation for US democracy promotion, or Duverger’s Law.

We might also point out that US graduate education is in fact a major industry in US GDP, and a successful ‘export’ in so far as foreigners come in large numbers to US schools and spend a lot of money, as well as, hopefully, pick-up liberal values (a soft power argument for education investment).

2. Find a way to communicate with conservatives. This will be very hard, but it should be pretty obvious to everyone now that American conservatives have really come to dislike academia. All supporters of the Coburn amendment were Republicans; Fox regularly accuses academia of ‘indoctrination’ (just last night Hannity blamed American college students’ ignorance of Margaret Thatcher on ‘your hard-earned tax dollars funding liberal professors’); evangelicals think we are de-christianizing our students. I am not sure how to do this. My own sense is that the GOP really is turning toward what Andrew Sullivan calls ‘epistemic closure.’ Remember ‘we’re an empire now; we build our own reality’? Then there was the Texas GOP’s rejection of ‘critical thinking,’ because reading too much destroys patriotism. Plus the denials of climate warming, evolution, or a link between rape and pregnancy. (In passing, it’s worth noting that even Augustine thought Genesis was an allegory and not real history; see the last 3 books of the Confessions.)

If the GOP really is turning toward a ‘Know-Nothing party,’ then there is little we can do. There may simply be an unbridgeable divide over the importance of unrestricted inquiry, academic freedom, and the ‘critical thinking’ importance of heavily reading those who disagree with you. But I also think this is Southern evangelical hang-up rather than GOP-wide. I used to work for the Ohio Republican party back in the 1990s, and there was none of this stuff. Ohio Republicans were moderate and still are. The problem is the southern-fried take-over of the national party that turned Obama into African Muslim stalinist and all that.

On the other hand, if that is where the GOP is going – and so far its supposed post-2012 election re-construction is not really happening – then political science may need to start considering other funding sources. If NSF is permanently under siege, what about state governments, think-tanks, foundations, and so? Is that feasible?

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