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The Attack on a Fact-centered Political Science

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In the Senate debate over the Continuing Resolution to fund the U.S. Government for the remainder of the fiscal year, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) won a voice vote to eliminate funding for the Political Science program of the National Science Foundation except under very narrow conditions. Coburn has had political science in his sights for several years.

Why this target? Coburn's reasoning that the program somehow exemplifies mismanagement and mis-prioritization is unpersuasive, because surely there is no more of this mismanagement in political science than anywhere else in government. Indeed, in his earlier report on NSF, he mentions several examples of studies indicative of mis-prioritization -- none of which were funded by the Political Science program.

Of the two studies he cited in his remarks in introducing his amendment, one centered on conditions of cooperation between the president and congress, and the other on citizen attitudes toward the filibuster. I suspect citizens would applaud the former study. On the latter, maybe the senator is right, maybe not, but the example is indeed a slender thread to support his sweeping claims. These are by no means the 'golden fleece' type of studies that might make his case better.

Why should government fund political science research? That question cannot be separated from the question of why government should fund any disciplinary research. The long-term aim surely is to promote development of a research community that bases its studies in facts and sound analysis.

Politics is about the clash of values; as a consequence political science must be focused on the political debates of the day. It is and always has been controversial as a discipline. The discipline itself experiences internal divisions about the desirability of pursuing a fact-based analytical strategy rather than a more advocacy-centered approach. Coburn actually cites an opponent of fact-based political analysis in his written statement, a good indicator of what he is actually doing, intentional or not.

Surely it is in the interest of political leaders to foster the analytic and fact-based capacities in the discipline, because more effective government requires it. Moreover, doing so removes political science from the side-taking stance that many in and out of the discipline demand. To be blunt, many political scientists tend toward the moderate-to-left end of the political spectrum, and it is in the particular interest of conservatives to promote a more fact-based study of politics.

A review of the studies funded by the Political Science program shows conclusively that the investment has succeeded in promoting analysis over opinion. Indeed, although he complains that "much of political science's studies have not even generated useful data," Coburn himself relied on data from our NSF-funded Policy Agendas Project in his report on declining congressional workloads.

But why was Coburn able to succeed? Why did his Senate colleagues agree? Why not some other social science discipline? Why not all social science? In the end, politicians don't appreciate scrutiny, which is exactly what political science does. The lab rats don't want to be studied. And for a very good reason: As our system of government shows clear signs of weakness, and Congress suffers an 85 percent disapproval rate at least, those running the show apparently would like to avoid the strong light of scientific inquiry.

Political science, at its empirical best, brings the opportunity for transparency and accountability in a way not possible in a political world characterized by a cacophony of opinions and demands. I hope that Congress will see fit to reconsider its actions in the FY 2014 budget.