Wednesday, 7 October 2009

NSF: Non-Sufficient Funds for Political Science

I find myself in total agreement with Dan Drezner’s thoughts on Sen. Tom Coburn’s deeply asinine proposal to save less than $10 million per year by eliminating the National Science Foundation’s funding for political science research.

Of course, you can probably take this as self-interested pleading since I have been the direct beneficiary of approximately $1500 in (taxable) NSF-funded stipend money and an indirect beneficiary of its funding by having access to the American National Election Studies. And I’ll freely concede that in my ideal universe, the federal government wouldn’t spend $10 million/year on political science research, but in that same universe the government wouldn’t spend hundreds of times that amount on Medicare prescription drug benefits, enforcing about 90% of the regulations of OSHA, building “infrastructure to nowhere,” bailing out every dying domestic industry, and subsidizing the activities of the world’s best-paid farmers.

And, I’d be rather more impressed if Coburn (or his staff) actually understood what the ANES did in the first place; the funding (all of about $1 million per fielded survey, which includes several thousand face-to-face interviews with voters across the United States) doesn’t fund data analysis but the collection of original data that nobody else collects because pollsters—unlike social scientists—don’t really care why people hold the opinions they have. If the ANES simply duplicated the work of Gallup, Harris Interactive, Zogby, Research 2000, and the dozens of other polling houses doing work for political candidates and the media I’d gladly agree that the spending was misplaced. And if the Census Bureau weren’t legally prohibited from collecting much of this information (for good reason, I might add) a case could be made that using their resources would be less costly.

But the reality is that the “basic science” that Coburn thinks is having resources diverted away from it for frivolous research on understanding our political system is the type of research with practical applications that has the least necessity for governmental subsidy. Materials science research on “bone that blends into tendons,” “next-generation biofuels,” and “microchip-sized fans” are examples of applied research that can be easily commercialized where the private sector is essentially freeloading on the taxpayer—I see no obvious reason why medical implants companies, major energy concerns, and Intel or IBM or Texas Instruments (respectively) couldn’t fund these research projects themselves since there are fairly obvious financial benefits to them in the short-to-medium term. Certainly there’s a better case to be made for “market failure” in providing most social scientific research than there is for “hard” science research—which still receives the lion’s share of funding and is often supported not just by NSF, but also the Department of Energy and other federal research funds that dwarf the $10 million/year spent on the study of political phenomena.*

If there is a valid critique to be made here, it is that the NSF has strayed from being focused on grants for “basic” science into the applied and pedagogical realms that are beyond the NSF‘s core mission and are best left to private industry and other government agencies such as the Department of Education, respectively.

More on this theme from Henry Farrell, Andrew Gelman, and Joshua Tucker.

Update: There are further thoughts in this vein from Steven Taylor and Charli Carpenter. Farrell points out that this isn't the first time the NSF political science program has been a target. And "Miss Self-Important" takes an ambivalent view.

* According to the NSF, the FY 2009 budget for the agency was just over $6.49 billion. This means that the political science program received, by historical trends, just a shade over 0.15% (or $1 out of every $600 spent) of the appropriation that year. And the NSF‘s budget was a drop in the bucket of the roughly $3.1 trillion spent by the federal government in the 2009 fiscal year. In other words, NSF political science funding was roughly 0.00032% of the annual spending of the national government during the 2009 fiscal year. Or, in other terms, 3¢ for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Another perspective to ponder: Coburn’s salary and perks, his personal staff salaries, and office expenses cost the American taxpayer in the same ballpark as the entirety of the NSF political science funding that year.