It has been a while since I felt I had to post something regarding political science and the National Science Foundation. I worried that the current administration would turn its sights on the Political Science program. But, so far, the Trump administration has left the National Science Foundation alone. Little did I suspect that political scientists would turn to attacking NSF and the Political Science program.
The current flap stems from the announcement that the Political Science program will be split into two programs effective October 1, 2019. Both programs, run by political scientists, will carry new names: “Security and Preparedness” and “Accountable Institutions and Behavior.” My first thought, when hearing of this move was: brilliant! No longer would political science be caught in the cross hairs of Congress. Moreover, this would allow the programs to grow, providing more money for political science research.
Political science has long been in the cross hairs of Members of Congress (MOC) wanting to end public funding for something that is regarded as common sense. After all, MOCs are politicians and they have an implicit sense of how politics works. Why should we waste public funding on such nonsense? Clearly there is lack of understanding of the breadth of work carried out by political scientists. When MOCs are shown research that carry out policy evaluations or deal with issues of state security, they acknowledge the value and applaud the research. When pressed MOCs assert that this is not what political scientists do – instead the profession is little more than an agglomeration of Ivory Tower pundits who second guess and attack elected representatives. As such, federal funding should be eliminated for political science (and perhaps, by extension all of the social sciences – I have written on this many times, see here ).
By splitting the program in two and avoiding the name “political science,” the NSF is removing an easy target for MOCs. The new programs continue to deal with the same topics that the Political Science program has long funded. The newly named “Security and Preparedness” program covers the full range of topics of its predecessor: “political violence, state stability, conflict processes, regime transition, international and comparative political economy,” etc. What MOC might want to question the scientific study of “issues broadly related to global and national security” covered by this program? Even in a polarized Congress, who would object to evidence-based research that addresses security?
The second program “Accountable Institutions and Behavior” (AIB) appears to cover everything else that the old Political Science program covered. It supports “individual and group decision-making, political institutions (appointed or elected), attitude and preference formation and expression, electoral processes and voting, public administration, and public policy.” While a very large list, these are merely examples of the substantive concerns of this program. The only constraint is that the program does not fund applied research. This is nothing new, it simply takes the lead from the old program.
All of this seems fine. So why is the leadership of the American Political Science Association unsupportive of this change? And why is it lobbying Congress to have NSF retain the name of its favorite target – Political Science? One reason, of course, is the core identity of “political science” as a name around which scholars organize. Granted, APSA is not going to change its name. It can continue as the lightning rod for MOCs. But at least at the NSF political science research will continue to be funded and no longer be a target for Congress. What truly organizes political scientists are shared concepts and questions, not a name.
A second concern raised by APSA is that the new programs will fail to “advance scientific knowledge and understanding of our political institutions, norms, behaviors, and the notion of citizenship.” I agree that this would be a travesty, but this strikes me as the core of the AIB program.
A third concern expressed by APSA is reaffirming “the importance of inclusivity and representation of the many forms and empirical topics that constitute the breadth and depth of our collective contributions.” This is an important part of APSA’s mission. It represents its membership and celebrates its member’s contributions. NSF, on the other hand, provides public funding for research that covers the breadth of what political scientists do. Its mission is not lobbying, but funding. Without the funding, there will be a huge dent in members’ research contributions.
A fourth concern by APSA, but not clearly stated, is that each of these two new programs will eventually be taken over by rogue Program Officers who will no longer support political scientists. This is always possible, but then the same is true even under the old Political Science program. I served as a Program Officer and occasionally funded (or jointly funded) research with economists, sociologists and neuroscientists. I served for two years and I think political science survived me. Ultimately the community provides the proposals that are funded. If political scientists decide to no longer submit proposals, then the programs will wither and disappear. I find this very unlikely.
While I agree that some may get confused by the new naming conventions and possibly submit their proposal to the wrong program, I’ll let you in on an internal secret. Program Officers in SES (Social and Economic Sciences) commonly talk to one another. They also trade proposals. If a proposal does not look like it fits the program to which it was submitted, then the Program Officer shops it around to other programs. Trading proposals is common. Joint funding with other programs is common. The goal for any Program Officer is to fund the very best science. Excellent work will find a funding home at NSF.
Personally, I am breathing a sigh of relief that Political Science has been taken out of the cross hairs of continual Congressional efforts to be defunded. I see this as a positive step forward for the discipline and for social science as a whole.