Those of us who are members of the American Political Science Association have received a fair number of emails regarding the House of Representatives’ decision this past May to eliminate National Science Foundation support for political science research. The standard justification for government subsidies for basic research hinges on the existence of positive externalities. Can this defense extend to the social sciences? To political science? Jacqueline Stevens, political scientist from Northwestern, makes a spirited case in the NYT against NSF support, one that will certainly not be well received by many of her colleagues.
As Stevens notes:
It’s an open secret in my discipline: in terms of accurate political predictions (the field’s benchmark for what counts as science), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money.
Good opening salvo. However, Stevens ultimately objects not to NSF funding per se, but to funding that goes to quantitative research (not a shock, given that she is a theorist) rather than to the kind of political science she approves of. As she concludes:
Government can — and should — assist political scientists, especially those who use history and theory to explain shifting political contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines. Research aimed at political prediction is doomed to fail. At least if the idea is to predict more accurately than a dart-throwing chimp.
To shield research from disciplinary biases of the moment, the government should finance scholars through a lottery: anyone with a political science Ph.D. and a defensible budget could apply for grants at different financing levels. And of course government needs to finance graduate student studies and thorough demographic, political and economic data collection.
By way of disclosure, I have benefited from NSF funding in the past. But I wonder, is there any real justification for channeling tax revenues into grants for political science scholarship, particularly at a time when we face severe budgetary problems for as long as the eye can see? I can understand the positive externality argument for basic science research–even if I find it less than persuasive–but are there any real positive externalities outside of the physical and biological sciences?
I wait to be convinced.