I ought to apologize to all my readers for wasting your federal tax dollars.
My alleged transgression? According to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), it’s because I’m a political scientist. In the summer of 2007, I earned about $2,300 as a research assistant on a project funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
But instead of providing a mea culpa, I will now challenge my accuser to analyze the evidence behind his argument — as any good scientist ought to do — and ask him to quietly drop his charges.
On Wednesday, Coburn introduced an amendment that would forbid the NSF from funding any work in political science in fiscal year 2010. He suggested that my field’s average funding of $9.13 million a year over the last decade diverts money from more important scientific work.
Leaving aside that $9.3 million is only .15 percent of the $6.9 billion in funding the NSF received last year, Coburn’s makes numerous misguided arguments in trying to axe the funding.
He claims political science isn’t really science and he argues it doesn’t provide a useful service to society like curing cancer. He also believes media organizations provide all the political analysis people need.
On his website, Coburn suggests “that the political projects funded by the NSF have little to do with science.” Here, the senator confuses political science with practical politics. As I tell my students every semester political science is the study of politics, not the advocacy of a political position. The evidence gained from scientific study, however, can certainly inform political advocacy. Loosely paraphrasing Karl Popper, a well-regarded philosopher of science, scientific discovery rests on two principles: developing a theory and using data to test the theory. Like physicists and biologists, political scientists do both of these things in their work.
Take one of the projects that Coburn disparages as a waste of money in his analysis: studying the “costs” of voting, particularly the amounts of time voters wait in line to vote. Forty years of research by political scientists has confirmed that increasing the time cost of voting tends to lead to declines in voter turnout.
How do scholars know this? They theorized that longer amounts of time waiting in line or tougher registration rules made it more “costly” to vote by taking up potential voters’ time. To test the theory, political scientists then analyzed different voting laws and waiting times across states and found that tougher registration laws and longer waits correlated with lower voter turnout. The theory held up against attempts to control for other factors, like a lack of opposition candidates.
Coburn’s second argument suggests that political science doesn’t provide anything useful to society. Let’s extend the example about voting costs. In a democratic society based on elections, it seems important to know about how many voters get to the polls, especially if some groups of voters, like African-Americans, have to systematically wait in longer lines than others. The University’s own Walter Mebane has done extensive research into this phenomenon and provided expert testimony in court cases about it.
To take other examples, political scientists also study how to design political institutions. Let’s say you want a power-sharing government to mute ethnic or religious conflict in a divided country, like Iraq. You might want to know what sorts of ramifications various sorts of electoral systems will have on resource distribution. Or perhaps you want to explore federalism as an alternative to grant minority groups local governance. Allen Hicken, Jenna Bednar and Ken Kollman, all political scientists at the University, study those things, often with funding from the NSF.
Finally, Coburn suggests that the news media can provide all the political analysis we need. But the truth is that news coverage, while often providing valuable insight into politics, generally focuses haphazardly on short-term developments and not on recognizing underlying structures. Political scientists are in it for the long haul. We’re not just interested in who’s going to win the current election and by how much – although our forecasting models do a decent job predicting that. Rather, we seek to understand broader questions underlying political processes.
So after defending the science and relevance of political science, I’ll take my last few words to engage in selfish political advocacy: Please encourage your senators and representatives to vote “Nay” on Tom Coburn’s ignorant Amendment 2631 to gut political science funding.
Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.