Thursday, October 8, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

Apparently, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) isn’t all that fond of political science, as he is sponsoring the following amendment to HR 2847:

Coburn Amendment 2631 – Prohibits the National Science Foundation from wasting federal research funding on political science projects.

When Americans think of the National Science Foundation, they think of cross-cutting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Most would be surprised to hear that the agency spent $91.3 million over the last
10 years on political “science” and $325 million last year alone on social studies and economics.

This amendment ensures more federal resources are directed towards supporting practical science by prohibiting the National Science Foundation (NSF) from spending research funds on political science projects.

First, I am not sure that most Americans know anything about the National Science Foundation.

Second, one has to love the scare quotes around science in political science above.

I can readily accept the notion that there is a debate to be had about federal funding of research (and not just polisci work). That is perfectly legitimate. However, it would be nice if Coburn at least knew what he was talking about. To wit in the text of the amendment on the question is the following:

The largest award over the last 10 years under the political science program has been $5.4 million for the University of Michigan for the “American National Election Studies” grant. The grant is to “inform explanations of election outcomes.” The University of Michigan may have some interesting theories about recent elections, but Americans who have an interest in electoral politics can turn to CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, the print media, and a seemingly endless number of political commentators on the internet who pour over this data and provide a myriad of viewpoints to answer the same questions. There is no shortage of data or analysis in this field that would require the government to provide funding for additional analysis.

It is flatly not the case that the University of Michigan’s work on American elections is somehow equivalent to election-night reporting and commentary. And while there are some bloggers who do attempt to engage in legitimate analysis, some of it truly empirical in nature as well, they are not the same thing as actual political science analysis.

As (fellow political scientist) Dan Drezner quips:

OK, dear readers, I want you to close your eyes and imagine a world in which your entire knowledge of political behavior emanated only from CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, and political parties.

Take your time. I’ll wait.

If that world didn’t scare you, well, then, you have nothing to worry about. The rest of you can marvel at Coburn’s failure of logic.


Look, I have never had (nor have I sought) NSF funding–partly this is because of the type of institution at which I teach and partly because of the kind of academic work that I do–but the notion that what is being done with such funds is glorified punditry misunderstands the academic enterprise altogether.

See also Andrew Gelman and Henry Farrell.

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3 Responses to “Coburn Doesn’t Heart PoliSci”

  1. MSS Says:

    I am glad to see some of my fellow political “science” bloggers jump on this. I have been much too busy working on my NSF grant to take the time to comment.

    But maybe I should just send out a resume to CNN or Fox, and forget the “research.”

  2. Fruits and Votes » Prof. Shugart's Blog » I do political “science” Says:

    [...] has some comments, too, and links to other members of the “profession” who should spend more time blogging and less time enjoying leisure under the guise of [...]

  3. PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » DeMint on Honduras Says:

    [...] = ‘DeMint+on+Honduras’; addthis_pub = ”; Sphere: Related ContentI guess this is the week of scare quotes (see also, here). [↩] Filed under: Latin America, US Politics | | The views expressed in the [...]

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