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Political Science in the Crosshairs

Republicans defund academic studies whose lessons they don't want to learn

On March 20 the Senate de-funded political science grants from the National Science Foundation “except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Since political science research, like most scientific research, is seldom undertaken to promote national security or the economic interests of the U.S., it seems doubtful there will be many such exceptions.

The vote was part of the Senate’s continuing resolution to fund the government for the next six months, which subsequently cleared the House, thereby averting the looming threat of a government shutdown. The exceptions based on national security and national economic interests were the price of winning support from Senate appropriations chair Barbara Mikulski, who then put it to a voice vote.

We have to assume that Mikulski also won concessions on some other matters, because disallowing political science grants is not something Democrats have supported in the past. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. The amount of money saved is somewhere south of $11 million, out of a total NSF budget of about $7 billion. Cutting $11 million as part of a long-term effort to eliminate a budget deficit currently estimated at $1.1 trillion is like trying to fill an empty swimming pool by spitting into it.

The real reason the NSF’s political science program is being eliminated is that Republicans are ideologically hostile to its content, not its cost. Jeff Flake, the Republican congressman from Arizona who sponsored a similar bill that cleared the House last year, dislikes the program because it spent “$700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis.” Senator Tom Coburn, the Republican from Oklahoma who sponsored the Senate amendment, doesn’t like it because he’s tired of reading studies about the public’s distaste for the filibuster, the GOP’s most cherished nullification tool.

(I pause here to disclose that my girlfriend works at NSF. But she works in a hard-science division, which stands to receive more funding under the Coburn amendment, since Coburn would transfer poli-sci funds to hard-science programs. Nevertheless, I think doing so is a lousy idea.)

Coburn thinks political science is bullshit—you can tell because he puts “science” in quotation marks. “Theories on political behavior are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties, and the voters,” he has declaimed, as if these theories were pulled out of thin air. Winging it may be Coburn’s favored method, but the better journalists, pollsters, pundits, historians, and even the occasional candidate rely on information, and much of that information comes from NSF-funded studies. At the moment I happen to be reading an advance copy of White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class In Economic Policy Making, an interesting new book by Nicholas Carnes, assistant professor of public policy at Duke. It’s a study about the class bias of state and federal legislators, and in the acknowledgments the author writes that it “would not have been possible without the financial support I received from the National Science Foundation.” The American National Election Studies, a voter-survey project run jointly by the University of Michigan and Stanford, was originally created with NSF money and remains heavily reliant on NSF funding. It is widely used by journalists and academics. Coburn himself used some NSF-funded political science research in a 2011 report defending the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency. The $270,000 grant, the blogger John Sides has observed wryly, represented a mere 13 percent of Coburn’s own annual office expenses.

There is no reason to think Coburn is done harassing the NSF, since he doesn’t have much use for the social sciences generally. In 2011—the same year Coburn issued a report drawing on NSF-subsidized political science research—Coburn issued another report calling on NSF to eliminate all its social sciences funding, which totals $254 million, a piddling 4 percent of NSF’s total budget. Writing in the Washington Post last year, Charles Lane also suggested Congress zero out NSF’s entire social sciences budget, because in our present time of austerity “this is a luxury we can live without.” Luxury? Give me a break. Remember the swimming pool I mentioned earlier? Eliminating the $1.1 trillion budget deficit by cutting $254 million (or perhaps I should say $127 million, since Lane proposes shifting half to hard sciences and using the other half to cut spending) would be like trying to fill the pool with a water pistol.

Would this funding be missed? As the author of a book on income inequality, my thoughts turn to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, whose “major funding source” is NSF. Created in 1968 (and also run, as it happens, by the University of Michigan), the PSID is the world’s longest-running “panel survey” of nationally representative households. (A panel survey is a longitudinal study in which respondents are interviewed at regular time intervals.) Most of what we know about intergenerational trends in income mobility—i.e., how much people move up and down the income ladder—comes from the PSID.

As recently as 1988, Gary Becker, a Nobel prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, judged there to be a weak intergenerational link between the earnings of fathers and their sons relative to the broader income distribution. In effect, Becker said, the American dream of upward mobility was in fine health. Only about 20 percent of your relative income was “inherited” from your parents. But four years later, in 1992, the University of Michigan’s Gary Solon used PSID data to upend Becker’s analysis (which had been based on other, fairly weak data). Becker found that 40 percent of your relative income was “inherited” from your parents. Subsequent studies have put income heritability as high as 60 percent.

If you don’t think it’s worth knowing the extent to which economic success or failure in the U.S. is a rigged game determined by parentage, you’d probably just as soon the PSID didn’t exist. If you do, then I’d recommend you ignore the advice to eliminate NSF’s social science funding from Coburn and Lane. Solving America’s problems is hard enough when you can identify what those problems are. When you can’t, it’s impossible.