Po­lit­i­cal sci­ence profs fight for fed­eral grants in face of crit­ics’ scorn

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

The na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists are on the warpath, an­gry at ef­forts to cut off their fed­eral fund­ing and at taunts that they are get­ting tax­payer dol­lars to do what tele­vi­sion talk­ing heads do al­ready.

The pro­fes­sors of “poli sci” are fight­ing to save a tax­payer rev­enue stream amount­ing to $112 mil­lion in fed­eral grants and other pro­grams over the past decade to study top­ics rang­ing from how politi­cians ben­e­fit from be­ing vague and how world leaders re­act to crises.

They’re let­ting fly on bud­get hawk Sen. Tom Coburn’s bid to elim­i­nate the funds with the full force of academia: They blogged, they Tweeted, they filled In­ter­net mes­sage boards, and they begged se­na­tors to save their Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion (NSF) fund­ing.

“Does Coburn have some spe­cial rea­son for hat­ing NSF al­lo­ca­tions to poli sci? Maybe his pro- posal for a dis­ser­ta­tion im­prove­ment grant wasn’t funded?” wrote one anony­mous com­menter on PoliS­ciJobRu­mors.com, a Web site for po­lit­i­cal sci­ence folks, which erupted into a spir­ited de­bate as the Se­nate pre­pared to vote on the amend­ment.

Mr. Coburn, who is not back­ing down, of­fered the fund­ing ban to a ma­jor spending bill be­ing de­bated last week on the floor of the Se­nate.

And the Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can’s of­fice was not shy in its point-by-point re­but­tal, with jokes about tweed jack­ets and the cushy life of the av­er­age col­lege pro­fes­sor, and ques­tions about whether ivory-tower po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists aren’t over­matched by the semipro­fes­sion­als on the ca­ble and net­work talkfests.

“The irony of this com­plaint is that real-world po­lit­i­cal sci­ence prac­ti­tion­ers em­ployed by me­dia out­lets — [Ge­orge] Stephanopou­los, [Peggy] Noo­nan, James Carville, Karl Rove, Paul Be­gala, Larry Kud­low, Bill Ben­nett (the list goes on) — may know more about the sub­ject than any of our premier po­lit­i­cal sci­ence fac­ul­ties,” Coburn spokesman John Hart said.

Among NSF’s re­cent projects was one that sent $188,206 to the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley to study “can­di­date am­bi­gu­ity and voter choice.” Ac­cord­ing to the project ab­stract, the money would be used in part for polling to see when politi­cians ben­e­fit by be­ing vague.

An­other project sent $49,830 to the Uni­ver­sity of Iowa to look at “ge­net­ics and po­lit­i­cal be­hav­ior.” That grant pays for 20 pro­fes­sors to at­tend a work­shop in Colorado, where they are trained on how to use “ap­plied sta­tis­ti­cal ge­net­ics” to study po­lit­i­cal be­hav­ior.

The pro­fes­sors say their work is truly sci­en­tific and makes con­tri­bu­tions to the coun­try. Sev­eral pointed to ex­am­i­na­tions of how coun­tries and leaders will act in times of cri­sis as an ex­am­ple of the value of their work.

Michael Brint­nall, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence As­so­ci­a­tion (APSA), said po­lit­i­cal sci­ence isn’t the same as pol­i­tics. He said po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists use the sci­en­tific method to pur­sue re­search into how pol­i­tics is prac­ticed.

“Sci­ence is a way of know­ing, and we need to use that way of know­ing to un­der­stand our po­lit­i­cal, the way our democ­racy works, our se­cu­rity re­la­tions in the world,” he said.

The over­all dol­lars aren’t big — $112 mil­lion over the past 10 years — but both sides see the fight as a mat­ter of prin­ci­ples and pri­or­i­ties.

The bat­tle has erupted as the Se­nate de­bates the spending bill for fed­eral sci­ence fund­ing, which in­cludes the NSF. Mr. Coburn has in­tro­duced an amend­ment that would stop the sci­ence agency from fund­ing po­lit­i­cal sci­ence projects, ar­gu­ing that the money is bet­ter spent on real sci­ence.

NSF’s Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence Pro­gram was cre­ated in 1965, but the agency says it started fund­ing po­lit­i­cal sci­ence projects beginning in 1961.

Dur­ing the first year of full op­er­a­tion, the pro­gram spent $300,000 to fund seven re­search grants and two con­fer­ences.

Mr. Coburn says he’s not ques­tion­ing the wor­thi­ness of projects — just the need to spend tax­pay­ers’ money on them.

“Po­lit­i­cal sci­ence prac­ti­tion­ers will do just fine, par­tic­u­larly be­cause many will con­tinue to have ac­cess to other sources of pri­vate and gov­ern­ment funds,” Mr. Hart said.

“Pro­fes­sors across Amer­ica will hardly be thrown on the streets with only their tweed jack­ets to keep them warm.”

Not all po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sors are an­gry at Mr. Coburn’s move.

“Coburn is im­pos­si­ble to de­fend,” one pro­fes­sor wrote. “But can you re­ally say that Amer­ica would be a sub­stan­tially dif­fer­ent and worse place if the NSF had never funded any po­lit­i­cal sci­ence re­search?”

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