Should tax dollars fund political scientists?

Rick Moran
The Republicans want to eliminate grants from the National Science Foundation for political scientists, and the poly sci professors are in an uproar.

But one political scientist writing in the New York Times points out why this is an excellent idea:

It's an open secret in my discipline: in terms of accurate political predictions (the field's benchmark for what counts as science), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money. The most obvious example may be political scientists' insistence, during the cold war, that the Soviet Union would persist as a nuclear threat to the United States. In 1993, in the journal International Security, for example, the cold war historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote that the demise of the Soviet Union was "of such importance that no approach to the study of international relations claiming both foresight and competence should have failed to see it coming." And yet, he noted, "None actually did so." Careers were made, prizes awarded and millions of research dollars distributed to international relations experts, even though Nancy Reagan's astrologer may have had superior forecasting skills.

Political prognosticators fare just as poorly on domestic politics. In a peer-reviewed journal, the political scientist Morris P. Fiorina wrote that "we seem to have settled into a persistent pattern of divided government" - of Republican presidents and Democratic Congresses. Professor Fiorina's ideas, which synced nicely with the conventional wisdom at the time, appeared in an article in 1992 - just before the Democrat Bill Clinton's presidential victory and the Republican 1994 takeover of the House.

One could make similar claims about sociology, economics, history, and probably climate science. They never get it right. Predictive models are useless. Hundreds of millions of dollars go to funding these baseless conclusions and it's high time a thorough review got underway to ascertain the true value of these grants.

Political scienitsts would seem to be a logical first cut:

Alas, little has changed. Did any prominent N.S.F.-financed researchers predict that an organization like Al Qaeda would change global and domestic politics for at least a generation? Nope. Or that the Arab Spring would overthrow leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia? No, again. What about proposals for research into questions that might favor Democratic politics and that political scientists seeking N.S.F. financing do not ask - perhaps, one colleague suggests, because N.S.F. program officers discourage them? Why are my colleagues kowtowing to Congress for research money that comes with ideological strings attached?

The political scientist Ted Hopf wrote in a 1993 article that experts failed to anticipate the Soviet Union's collapse largely because the military establishment played such a big role in setting the government's financing priorities. "Directed by this logic of the cold war, research dollars flowed from private foundations, government agencies and military individual bureaucracies." Now, nearly 20 years later, the A.P.S.A. Web site trumpets my colleagues' collaboration with the government, "most notably in the area of defense," as a reason to retain political science N.S.F. financing.

Imagine going through the $3.7 trillion federal budget and culling out these surveys, studies, and "grants to nowhere" that do nothing to advance our knowledge or allow the government to act more intelligently or efficiently in its planning? I am not advocating a total cutoff. Clearly, there are some areas - education comes to mind - where compiling statistics and other data is of great value. There may also be merit in many defense department surveys that tell us what we might need down the road in the way of weapons and policy.

But a better effort is needed in order to trim the fat. I imagine we could save billions if we truly got serious about cutting out the Mickey Mouse academic exercises and stuck with getting the information and statistics we need to run the government.



The Republicans want to eliminate grants from the National Science Foundation for political scientists, and the poly sci professors are in an uproar.

But one political scientist writing in the New York Times points out why this is an excellent idea:

It's an open secret in my discipline: in terms of accurate political predictions (the field's benchmark for what counts as science), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money. The most obvious example may be political scientists' insistence, during the cold war, that the Soviet Union would persist as a nuclear threat to the United States. In 1993, in the journal International Security, for example, the cold war historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote that the demise of the Soviet Union was "of such importance that no approach to the study of international relations claiming both foresight and competence should have failed to see it coming." And yet, he noted, "None actually did so." Careers were made, prizes awarded and millions of research dollars distributed to international relations experts, even though Nancy Reagan's astrologer may have had superior forecasting skills.

Political prognosticators fare just as poorly on domestic politics. In a peer-reviewed journal, the political scientist Morris P. Fiorina wrote that "we seem to have settled into a persistent pattern of divided government" - of Republican presidents and Democratic Congresses. Professor Fiorina's ideas, which synced nicely with the conventional wisdom at the time, appeared in an article in 1992 - just before the Democrat Bill Clinton's presidential victory and the Republican 1994 takeover of the House.

One could make similar claims about sociology, economics, history, and probably climate science. They never get it right. Predictive models are useless. Hundreds of millions of dollars go to funding these baseless conclusions and it's high time a thorough review got underway to ascertain the true value of these grants.

Political scienitsts would seem to be a logical first cut:

Alas, little has changed. Did any prominent N.S.F.-financed researchers predict that an organization like Al Qaeda would change global and domestic politics for at least a generation? Nope. Or that the Arab Spring would overthrow leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia? No, again. What about proposals for research into questions that might favor Democratic politics and that political scientists seeking N.S.F. financing do not ask - perhaps, one colleague suggests, because N.S.F. program officers discourage them? Why are my colleagues kowtowing to Congress for research money that comes with ideological strings attached?

The political scientist Ted Hopf wrote in a 1993 article that experts failed to anticipate the Soviet Union's collapse largely because the military establishment played such a big role in setting the government's financing priorities. "Directed by this logic of the cold war, research dollars flowed from private foundations, government agencies and military individual bureaucracies." Now, nearly 20 years later, the A.P.S.A. Web site trumpets my colleagues' collaboration with the government, "most notably in the area of defense," as a reason to retain political science N.S.F. financing.

Imagine going through the $3.7 trillion federal budget and culling out these surveys, studies, and "grants to nowhere" that do nothing to advance our knowledge or allow the government to act more intelligently or efficiently in its planning? I am not advocating a total cutoff. Clearly, there are some areas - education comes to mind - where compiling statistics and other data is of great value. There may also be merit in many defense department surveys that tell us what we might need down the road in the way of weapons and policy.

But a better effort is needed in order to trim the fat. I imagine we could save billions if we truly got serious about cutting out the Mickey Mouse academic exercises and stuck with getting the information and statistics we need to run the government.