Talk about going where no political science professor has gone before!

Daniel DiSalvo, an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York-CUNY and a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, dares to ask if the National Science Foundation should be funding political science.

A debate has raged for nearly a year over federal government’s funding of political science research. On one side are those who argue that very little public benefit is derived from such funding and that it only furthers Ivory Tower navel-gazing. On the other side are, not surprisingly, the political scientists themselves and those who claim that scientists not politicians should dictate what research government sponsors. The issue was recently reignited by a major policy speech by House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA). Things have gotten so interesting that even Paul Krugman has jumped in the fray. However, the whole debate is in many respects a tempest looking for a teapot to happen in.

Some background. In May of 2012, Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced legislation to cut off National Science Foundation (NSF) money flowing to political science. Flake’s bill did not seek to reduce the NSF budget, only to redirect its’ priorities. (The House approved the bill 218-208). The American Political Science Association, which has some 15,000 members, came out strongly against the bill being adopted in the Senate.

The NSF spent $11 million on political science research in 2012, which is less than 5% of the total $250 million spent on research in the social and behavior sciences. Many of the funded subjects of inquiry are of great academic interest but of little consequence to anyone else. For example, one group of researchers received $200,000 to study why congressmen make vague statements. Another group of scholars received $750,000 to study the “sacred values” at stake in cultural conflict. Both interesting subjects. But neither will have much of an impact on the “real” world….

Opponents of defunding political science adopt a tried and true progressive stand that science should be above or outside of politics. For example, Ezra Klein argues that scientists, rather than politicians, should determine what research enterprises a worthy of government support. Some political scientists have also tried to show the real-world relevance of the research they did with NSF grants.

DiSalvo concludes no matter the outcome of the debate, the nature of political science departments are not likely to change.

All told, it is not so much federal funding of political science that needs changing but the norms of the profession of political science. Yet, cutting of NSF funding is unlikely by itself to change the current scholastic culture of political science.