12 October 2009

Is Political Science A Science?

Last week, I read an interesting article from The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Senator Proposes an End to Federal Support for Political Science." In it, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) was reported as having submitted an amendment to the annual appropriations bill for the Departments of Justice, Commerce, Science, and Related Agencies for FY2010 (H.R. 2847 - link goes to the Library of Congress search page. Search for HR 2847). This amendment, S.A. 2631, says:
SA 2631. Mr. COBURN submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by him to the bill H.R. 2847, making appropriations for the Departments of Commerce and Justice, and Science, and Related Agencies for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2010, and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the table; as follows:
At the appropriate place in title III, insert the following:

Sec. __. None of the funds appropriated under this Act may be used 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.
 This got me thinking, since as a political science major at college this was, and still is, very important to me. So, being a good little politico, I called up Senator Coburn's Washington, DC office. I wasn't really expecting anything. Just to maybe talk to one of the Senator's interns, have my comments taken down, and then go about my business and call Senators Kyl and McCain to also voice my opinion. Instead, I got to talk with one of the Senator's staff members, Charlotte Pineda.

When I called, she answered, and I introduced myself and said I had just read the Chronicle news story, and wanted more information about why the Senator was so keen on stopping political science research in the National Science Foundation. Instead of sidestepping me, since I wasn't a constituent of Sen. Coburn (as I've seen happen many times before), Ms. Pineda took almost 40 minutes out of her schedule to talk with me and help me understand the Senator's point of view on the issue. I was impressed, to say the least.

Here's the argument according to Ms. Pineda on behalf of Sen. Coburn: political science, as it stands, is not a hard science. It does not bring about breakthroughs and developments which can help humanity - as sciences like chemistry, biology, engineering, etc can (she called them "transformative results") - and it creates very few, if any, jobs in the national job market. Political science, as a social science, has trouble even producing fact from theories, since it cannot demonstrably prove any of its conjectures.

Ms. Pineda also provided me with a copy of the research that the Senator's office had done in support of their claim. On the one hand, NSF-"hard"-science projects certainly do produce transformative results: biofuels research, medical engineering for disabled persons, a microchip-sized fan for laptop computers which helps with cooling the system more efficiently, and "fiber-reinforced concrete" which has the ability to bend without cracking or breaking to a certain point and is 40% lighter in weight. On the other side of the coin, the NSF programs in political science that they listed included answering the question "why do political candidates make vague statements, and what are the consequences?" NSF also held a conference in the effects of YouTube on the 2008 election cycle, research by universities studying why white middle-class voters vote Republican, and the production of "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" for coverage of the 2008 Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

On the surface, it certainly seems like a lopsided use of taxpayer dollars. But the real thing that struck me in the Senator's research was a line which read, "The National Science Foundation has misspent tens of millions of dollars examining political science issues which in reality have little, if anything, to do with science."

I started to wonder, what constitutes "science?" According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (1997), "science n. 1. an area of knowledge that is an object of study." (#2 deals with "natural science" which in my mind is a substrate of science itself and not a definition of just the word science.) The word hails from the Latin "scientia" meaning "knowledge," and according to a variety of internet definitions, refers best to the system of practices which result in the production of a prediction or a predictable outcome for an event. In contemporary form, science is defined by the use of the scientific method, the process of developing a theory, testing that theory, observing and then analyzing results for any given event.

Obviously, we all associate science as dealing with subjects like chemistry (soda pop, anyone?), biology (cancer research), physics (Isaac Newton), and applied sciences such as engineering or health science. We even recognize to some extent "formal science" in the field of mathematics, even though mathematics does not conform to the scientific method. Why not political science - or social sciences as a whole?

I believe that political science research can produce transformative results in society, even though those may not be monetary or tangible or affecting the creation of jobs. NSF-sponsored research on the continuing trends of globalization, for example, with respect to developing societies, when given the weight of validity equal to other observed and verifiable events as a science, may in turn help us preserve cultures and histories which would otherwise be lost to oblivion as a result of rapid forced modernization. Studying how people react in times of crisis could help our leaders produce better responsiveness and readiness plans for a major disaster. Here in Arizona, studying the aftereffects of propositions like Clean Elections Law could help us develop a better system for ensuring fairness in campaign elections reform (this one is actually ongoing, by the way).

Do these studies create jobs? No. Do they produce some tangible good that you can go out and buy? No. Are they any less important to study than the projects in the "hard" sciences? No. And here's the important question: could an entity not backed by government funding adequately carry out research like this? My answer is probably not.

This brings me to my final point. One thing in both the research provided by Sen. Coburn's office and in my conversation with Ms. Pineda that I found some fault in was the argument that any number of smaller, non-governmental entities could carry out research like this. For example, the Coburn research says "The [American National Studies grant] is to 'inform explanations of election outcomes.' The University of Michigan may have some interesting theories about recent elections, but Americans who have an interest in electoral politics can turn to CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, the print media, and a seemingly endless number of political commentators on the internet who pour over this data and provide a myriad of viewpoints to answer the same questions."

While it is true that major news networks and a wide number of internet spectators (yours truly being in a position through this blog to provide a qualified comment) do help with political research and commentary, for the most part those entities provide opinion analysis and a few major statistics for the benefit of the current television audience that day. It's a one-and-done conversation between talking heads about the highlights of white or black or Hispanic voters in rural California that isn't comprehended, much less a matter of concern, for a television audience with an attention span numbering in the tens of seconds. Why else would TV news have a flashy graphic every 30 seconds?

This is not research. This is not an acceptable form of applying scientific principles to observed events in order to try to predict the outcome. And it certainly is not something that can be peer reviewed, thought out, and rationalized in a manner which befits the scientific community.

Science is an area of knowledge that is the object of study. That includes social sciences just as much as hard sciences, and political research deserves the backing grants and funding from the government just as much as anything else the NSF researches. As for the argument that political science studies some things which may seem like a waste of money or tries to answer questions that a private survey corporation can do just as easily, well, the annual appropriations bills for the United States currently contain so much money for pork projects that it's not even funny, including millions of dollars for scientific projects such as "$4,545,000 for wood utilization research in 10 states by 19 senators and 10 representatives (engineering)," "$1,791,000 by Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee member Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) for swine odor and manure management research in Ames (chemistry)," and "$150,000 by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), then-Rep. Thomas Allen (D-Maine), and Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine) for the Maine Department of Natural Resources to conduct lobster research (I'll call this one biology)." These examples are from Citizens Against Government Waste's Pig Book 2009.

I urge the Senators from Arizona and across the nation to vote no this week (as I believe that is when it comes for a vote) on SA 2631, amending HR 2847.


  1. Political Science is one of the most popular majors among college graduates, if not the most popular. The country is in a crisis, economically and for specially skilled workers, specifically in traditional science and technology. There is also talk - stemming from lacking and/or misrepresenting media, including YouTube - that this country is turning from democracy. To what extent, G-d only knows. This bill could be suspected of limiting political education among Americans for ill-will reasons or negative consequences, it's likely this move is to funnel students away from the liberal sciences to practical sciences. Anyone interested in government can get a law degree or apply practical knowledge and application toward influencing and changing the system. Either way, let's pray.

  2. Anonymous,

    I simply don't think that we need to eliminate political science funding from the NSF because some people out there don't view it as a "real" science. Personally, I'm not a great mathematician, and as such, I wouldn't really be a great contributor to cancer research or bioengineering, both fields which require lots of math. I would rather study government, and work to improve it from the political science side, which I view as just as important.

  3. Well said, Andrew! We need people like you who can sift thru all the crap and tell us what is really going on! This is NOT the time to cut funding to political science! It's been proven time and again that we cannot trust the government to give us anything but THEIR truth, so we really need people out there who can hopefully give a more objective perspective.

  4. Andrew,

    This was an excellent blog post highlighting how research always needs to be funded. I think you clearly demonstrated the fact that social science always needs to be well funded. I hope you get the results you are looking for you. Since communication in some universities is a social science ,and that research is important too. Any help I can provide let me know.

  5. Spread the word, Ryan. SA 2631 supposedly comes up for a vote soon, so the best thing to do is contact Kyl and McCain (or your local senators if you're registered out of state).