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