Readers who follow the academic blogosphere may be aware of the so-called Flake amendment that passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 218-208 in May. Part of the spending bill for the National Science Foundation, the amendment prohibits the NSF from funding political science. Rep. Jeff Flake maintains that he’s trying to save public money by ending support for worthless or politically biased research, a line that’s been picked up by Charles Lane at the Washington Post. The amendment’s critics argue that Flake and Lane either don’t know what research is worth supporting, or are themselves influenced by political considerations (see especially The Monkey Cage, which has become a clearinghouse for this issue).
Because they deal with systems that are highly complex, adaptive and not rigorously rule-bound, the social sciences are among the most difficult of disciplines, both methodologically and intellectually. They suffer because their findings do sometimes seem obvious. Yet, equally, the common-sense answer can prove to be false when subjected to scrutiny. There are countless examples of this, from economics to traffic planning. This is one reason that the social sciences probably unnerve some politicians, some of whom are used to making decisions based not on evidence but on intuition, wishful thinking and with an eye on the polls. …
The idea that politicians should decide what is worthy of research is perilous. The proper function of democracy is to establish impartial bodies of experts and leave it to them. But Flake’s amendment does more than just disparage a culture of expertise. The research he selected for ridicule included studies of gender disparity in politics and models for international analysis of climate change — issues that are unpopular with right-wingers. In other words, his interference is not just about cost-cutting: it has a political agenda. The fact that he and his political allies seem to feel threatened by evidence-based studies of politics and society does not speak highly of their confidence in the objective case for their policies. Flake’s amendment is no different in principle to the ideological infringements of academic freedom in Turkey or Iran. It has nothing to do with democracy.
For the record, I oppose the Flake amendment, primarily because the amount of money at stake (around $11 million for 2012) is not very great. But the Nature editorial is pretty unconvincing as a defense of political science.
First, American political science does not have an impressive record of challenging conventional wisdom. Although there are many individual exceptions, the modern history of the discipline is inseparable from efforts to justify and increase the efficacy of American policy in the Cold War (rational choice theory is an especially clear example). This connection is not irrelevant to political scientists’ failures to foresee some major developments in recent history. Mostly famously, the collapse of the Soviet Union came as a surprise to the academic mainstream. It doesn’t follow from experts’ failure to predict one or more dramatic events that political science shouldn’t get public money (although the collusion of academic economists in the financial crisis does little for the credibility of social science more broadly). But Nature‘s picture of courageous nerds confronting the yokels in Washington with the disturbing truth doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny.
Second, the assertion that the “proper function of democracy is to establish impartial bodies of experts and leave it to them” shows breathtaking contempt for self-government. Even if it is limited to questions of public funding for science, Nature‘s editors appear think that citizens’ and their representatives’ job in a democracy is to pay up and shut up. Maybe they should have taken more classes on Aristotle or Montesquieu, which are usually taught by political theorists–the breed of political scientists who rarely or never receive NSF funding.
It is indeed a bad idea for public opinion to determine funding on specific projects. In democracy, however, it is well within the moral and political competence of the public to choose which areas of science to support. If the defenders of political science want to protect their funding, it is their job to make the case for its value to taxpayers. If they can’t do so successfully, so much the worse for them.
Finally, the Nature editorial is based on the one of the silliest ideas in modern political life: that cutting funding for something is comparable to banning it. Flake’s amendment is different in principle to limits on research and expression in Turkey or Iran. The difference is that leaves political scientists free to pursue any research that they want, provided that they are able to find the money for it. There is reason to believe that researchers might find it difficult to secure funding for projects without immediate economic, political, or military benefits. But that’s a matter of opportunity costs, not “ideological infringements of academic freedom”.
As far as I can tell, political scientists around the Web have welcomed Nature‘s intervention. They shouldn’t. Public support from a prestigious organ of the “hard” sciences, which enjoy broad public respect, may be comforting to members of a discipline under threat. But scholars who think of themselves as experts in politics ought to be able to recognize arguments that will only further undermine their authority.