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NSF Political Science cuts fail to predict the unpredictability of research

by Alex in | | |

On March 20 the Senate de-funded political science grants from the National Science Foundation “except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Since political science research, like most scientific research, is seldom undertaken to promote national security or the economic interests of the U.S., it seems doubtful there will be many such exceptions….

The amount of money saved is somewhere south of $11 million, out of a total NSF budget of about $7 billion. Cutting $11 million as part of a long-term effort to eliminate a budget deficit currently estimated at $1.1 trillion is like trying to fill an empty swimming pool by spitting into it. The real reason the NSF’s political science program is being eliminated is that Republicans are ideologically hostile to its content, not its cost.           — Political Science in the Crosshairs, The New Republic

As it happens, an NSF grant is what funded the lion’s share of my Ph.D. In my first year of graduate school, I successfully applied for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which funded most of my subsequent graduate studies with tuition support and a generous stipend. (Generous by grad student standards, not by living the high life standards.)

At the time of my application, I proposed to undertake just the kind of research that (as the New Republic speculates) Republicans might find distasteful: an investigation of the decline and resurrection of social democratic parties. But pretty early in my actual course of research, I pivoted towards research on the impact of the Internet on social democracy. Eventually, the social democracy side of the equation dropped out, and I wrote a dissertation about hacktivism: the phenomenon of politically-motivated computer hacking.

In other words, my dissertation ended up landing in exactly the area this Senate resolution proposes to exempt: a topic related to the natural security interests of the United States. While I was more interested in the implications for political participation than in the implications for cybersecurity, the breadth of interviews I undertook, the case studies I developed and the conclusions I reached all meant that my research was of interest to the security community. Interesting enough, anyhow, that my perspective has been sought out over the years by folks ranging from the Rand Institute to the US Department of Defense.

Yet none of that would have been apparent back in 1996, when I thought I was writing a dissertation about social democracy. Sure, my pivot may have been more dramatic than most, and unusual in landing so directly in a security-related field. But it is not at all unusual for research agendas to evolve, and to take a researcher in a direction quite different from what was anticipated. Indeed, I would argue that good research is defined by the openness to a change in direction, and by the researcher’s willingness to recognize when the outcomes or implications of research are substantially different from ex ante hypotheses.

By proposing to limit research funding to political science projects with direct and anticipated implications for national security or economic interests, the Senate vision precludes the kind of serendipity that may in fact be the source of some of the most surprising and useful research. Even if you buy the argument that research should only get funded when it has that kind of tangible benefit — which, by the way, I don’t — this kind of policy is far from guaranteed to produce the desired results.

Quite the opposite: in encouraging academic researchers to think narrowly about the relationship between their research and the national interest, it discourages the kind of broad exploration from which innovation emerges. And that isn’t in anybody’s interest.

First posted on March 22,2013

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