On Defunding Political Science Research
Previously published on Apr 1, 2013
On Wednesday, March 20, 2013, the GOP's charge to balance the Federal Budget scored another victory when the Senate voted to cut an entire ten million dollars worth of National Science Foundation funding that pays for political science research. As clearly expressed by the intended goal of amendment SA 65 to H.R. 933, Republicans like Jeff Flake and Tom Coburn wish "to prohibit the use of funds to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of 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."
The obvious political motivation is a view that the Federal government's role should be limited to providing for national security and ensuring economic development. Quite frankly, the responsibilities of the Federal government go far beyond the national security and economic interests of the United States as stated by the General Welfare clause under Article One, Section Eight of the US Constitution. That said, it is important to remember that we are in an age when democratic revolution is engulfing the Middle East and much of the developing world while the governments of the developed world are being undermined by global economic instability and growing ideological polarization.
Consider the fact that when it comes to legal and financial matters, people tend defer to lawyers and accountants. Consequently, it only makes sense for us to seek the council of relevant professionals when it comes to understanding the role of politics in government. Political science is the discipline that develops the models, theoretical constructs, and intellectual architecture that governments and citizens need to transcend politics in order to achieve improved governance. Instead of cutting a laughable ten million dollars worth of funding, the world's most powerful democracy should be expanding funding for the field of political science.
Unfortunately, our society seems to regard the field of political science as little more than an academic pursuit. Part of the problem is that our largely science based education system has lead Americans to over focus on numbers while we have also grown extremely shortsighted in our thinking thanks to a variety of other factors. Economics is driven by numbers; political science is not. Economics largely models short-term outcomes; political science models long-term social characteristics. Meanwhile, politics is a fairly accessible subject and most people have their own opinions on the issues of the news cycle, so professional political scientists do not offer unique skills in the eyes of the general public and the economy. As such, there are few private sector jobs available for political scientists doing basic research.
What was once the field of research that strived to understand the intersection of politics and policy has too often become an easy college major used as a springboard to law or business school. Aside from political science professors, journalists, who may or may not have an in-depth understanding of the discipline, and lobbyists, who have client interests in mind, are the ones trying to do the work of political scientists. With academia under pressure to control costs and produce graduates, who can actually expect to earn a living with their degrees, professional media outlets competing against free social media by pandering to viewer impulse, and lobbyist seeking only the interests of their clients, the political science field lacks the economic backing it needs to properly serve its social function.
Unfortunately, political science is not the only academic discipline in jeopardy. There are, in fact, many crucial intellectual disciplines that our society needs, yet such fields of research are neglected by the economy. A prevailing fault of economic thinking has been a view that technological advances occur at a predictable rate, so there is no need to push for the development of innovation as the market will provide what is needed. A great deal of innovation comes from basic research and scientific inquiry by those who study the sciences. Just as there is no political science economy, there is no physics economy, chemistry economy, earth science economy, biology economy, or even computer science economy.
The aforementioned fields exist today, because they are housed in universities and colleges while their research is funded by these professionals begging for grants from governments, research foundations, and private donors. Alternatively, individuals holding professional degrees in these fields find work in businesses where their skills are grossly underutilized and their job is often not to pursue the type of basic research that will lead to the advancement of the scientific models and theories needed for the next technological revolution. From a capitalist perspective, the fact that so many fundamental functions of our modern civilization are funded through socialist channels, instead of economic mechanisms, is disturbing and untenable.
Because our capitalist society never developed the economic mechanisms needed to fund critical intellectual endeavors, the natural sciences and social sciences, such as political science, have been growing increasingly underfunded. The pursuits of these fields more often than not fail to offer immediate, obvious benefits to our society. The fruits of these intellectual endeavors are, however, quite significant. For example, the socioeconomic benefits of quantum mechanics can be seen in LEDs and solid-state lasers, but it took decades before researchers figured out how to turn a bazaar theory into a series of world changing products. In summary, government needs to either fund political science research or fund research on how the private market can pay for the vital contributions of political scientists and other intellectual disciplines.