Yesterday, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced an amendment that would bar the National Science Foundation (NSF) from “wasting federal research funding on political science.” Coburn argues that these political sciences issues “have little, if anything, to do with science.” From his amendment:
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 [sic] over this data and provide a myriad of viewpoints to answer the same questions.
Coburn adds, “Theories on political behavior are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties, and the voters, rather than being funded out of taxpayers’ wallets.” His argument is like saying that schools should just have students watch Jim Cramer on CNBC instead of teaching economics.
Part of Coburn’s objections seem political, as Henry at Crooked Timber points out. As examples of the way the NSF has wasted its money, Coburn cites a study that found the United States is increasingly willing to torture terrorism suspects and research by Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. Today on his blog, Krugman responded to Coburn:
I can’t quite remember when I last received NSF support, but it has to be at least 20 years ago — and it was, of course, for work on international trade, work that, you know, won me a Clark Medal and that other prize. So the standard seems to be that if anyone ever supported by the NSF expresses liberal political opinions decades later, that discredits the program.
But much worse is the way Coburn singles out support for the American National Election Studies as a boondoggle. As I said, I’m not a political scientist — but I’ve done enough data-surveying to know that the ANES is a treasure trove of information that can’t be found anywhere else — certainly not, as Coburn suggests, on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. Of course, it’s obvious from what Coburn says that neither he nor anyone on his staff even bothered to look at what the ANES does.
Robert Lowry, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas, further explained the difference between the social science and the punditry: “I tell my undergraduate students, There’s a difference between arguing over pizza at 3 a.m. and doing actual hypothesis-testing. CNN has a lot of smart people, but at best it’s all a very short-term cycle. They chew over the results from last night’s election, and by the next week they’re on to something else.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that in 1995, a House committee approved a bill that would have eliminated nearly all the social science programs from the NSF, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) introduced a similar measure three years ago. The American Political Science Association is now asking people to contact senators to show support for their social science.