Monthly Archives: April 2013

First They Came for the Political Scientists…

Martin Niemoller

Martin Niemoller

An interesting story surfaced in the Huffington Post yesterday. It seems that Congress’ efforts to dictate the research funded by the National Science Foundation is not yet over. As the story notes, the House Science Committee is

making an unprecedented move to require oversight of the scientific research process, pushing a bill that would in effect politicize decisions made by the National Science Foundation… The bill, titled the High Quality Research Act and authored by [House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chair Lamar] Smith, would require the director of the NSF to certify in writing that every grant handed out by the federal agency is for work that is ‘the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and … is not duplicative of other research project being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.’

Smith followed up by requesting NSF Director Cora Marret justify a number of social science studies about which he had expressed concerns.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, who sits on the committee, fired back with his own letter to Smith.Johnson’s letter argues that,

Rather than entering into [a] dialogue, your letter marks the beginning of an investigative effort, the implications of which are profound. This is the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely viewed as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world… Interventions in grant awards by political figures with agendas, biases, and no expertise is the antithesis of the peer review process. By making this request, you are sending a chilling message to the entire scientific community that peer review may always be trumped by political review. You also threaten to compromise the anonymity that is crucial to the grant and open exchange of comments and critiques during the review process, and in doing so, further comprise the integrity of the merit review process. How can future participants in the peer review process have confidence that their work will remain confidential with the Chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee has shown that probing specific awards absent any allegation of wrong-doing may become the way business is done?

The debate raises several important issues around the role of public funding of research, the dangers of politicization of science, and the proper role of regulation in education and scientific research. But as a political scientist, it also makes me wonder why this debate did not occur two months ago, when Congress passed the Coburn Amendment limiting NSF funding for political science research. Reminds me a bit of the Martin Niemöller poem

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Those wishing to write their respective Representative can find their contact information on the House’s Office of the Clerk Website.

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The Politics of UN Security Council Reform

President Barack Obama chairs a meeting of the UN Security Council, September 24, 2009.

President Barack Obama chairs a meeting of the UN Security Council, September 24, 2009.

Blogging at Foreign Policy, David Bosco yesterday posted an interesting proposal for reform of the United Nations Security Council. As most readers probably already know, the UN Security Council is comprised of 15 members. The five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) each possess a veto over Security Council action. In addition, ten non-permanent members are elected by a two-thirds majority vote of the General Assembly to two year terms on a regional basis.

The structure of the Security Council was set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when the five permanent members made more sense. The structure makes little sense today, though. Several important countries (such as Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan) lack a permanent seat but want one. Meanwhile, the current permanent members of the Security Council are hesitant to embrace expansion, as any expansion would dilute their position.

And therein lies the challenge. Given the competing positions, there has been little agreement on how to move forward.  And any changes would require the approval of 2/3 of the Member States in the General Assembly and agreement by the five permanent members of the Security Council. Thus while a general consensus that the Security Council’s structure needs reforming is widely shared, the specifics of any individual country’s membership on the Council draws opposition. Italy and Spain oppose Germany’s claim, Mexico, Columbia, and Argentina oppose Brazil, Pakistan opposes India, South Korea opposes Japan. The African bloc also demands membership, though precisely which countries would represent Africa on the Council is not entirely clear. Given this level of disagreement, it has been relatively easy for the permanent members of the Council to avoid the difficult decisions associated with reform.

And this is what makes Bosco’s proposal so intriguing. He suggests that the General Assembly engage in a policy of collective disobedience, refusing to approve any new rotating members for the Security Council until the permanent members of the Security Council move forward with a real reform of the Council. It would also force the various camps in the General Assembly to set aside their competing positions and develop a coherent reform proposal. Bosco notes the collective action problem that would have to be overcome for this proposal to work. Nevertheless, it represents in interesting possibility in moving a twenty-year old debate forward.

What do you think? Should Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan be granted permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council? Can the United Nations overcome the structural challenges it faces and reform its structure to become more relevant in the 21st century? Or will competing positions and the structural power of the permanent members undermine proposals for reform? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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The Politics of Diplomatic Recognition

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was sworn into office on Friday.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was sworn into office on Friday.

The U.S. government last week announced it would not validate the results of Venezuela’s contested presidential election,  in which Hugo Chavez’s former Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, narrowly defeated challenger Henrique Capriles. Capriles’s campaign has called for a recount, but Maduro has refused. And while the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) has called for an emergency meeting to address the situation in Venezuela, many South American states, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, have already recognized Maduro’s new government.

It’s important to note that recognition here is not the same as formal diplomatic recognition, though media reports make it difficult to understand the difference. Diplomatic recognition refers to the formal recognition of states and their governments. States will often use diplomatic recognition as a tool to promote or punish particular actions. The most notable examples of this include Taiwan, which the United States recognizes but China does not.

Diplomatic recognition can also take de facto or de jure forms. De facto recognition refers to the informal recognition of a new country. In this sense, Taiwan has de facto recognition by China in so far as China engages in negotiations with the Taiwanese government. But it does not give de jure, or legal, recognition. There is no Chinese ambassador to Taiwan. Similarly, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Great Britain and the United States offered de facto recognition well before they engaged in the de jure exchange of ambassadors.

So if the United States’ decision via-a-vis Venezuela is not referring to diplomatic recognition, what exactly is it referring to? Here, we’re considering whether or not the United States considers the outcome of the election to be reflective of the will of the people? Were Venezuela’s elections, in other words, free and fair? The United States is effectively asserting they were not, and the government that resulted from them thus lacks legitimacy (and by extension, recognition).

What do you think? Should the United States withhold recognition of the new Venezuelan government? Are Venezuela’s most recent election results reflective of the will of Venezuela’s people? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Pedagogy: Teaching Our Students the Skills They Need

Chemistry Lecture at the University of Iowa in the 1930s (image courtesy University of Iowa Libraries)

Chemistry Lecture at the University of Iowa in the 1930s (image courtesy University of Iowa Libraries)

Amid all the angst of the declining value of a liberal arts education, the American Association of Colleges and Universities last week released its latest survey of employers. The findings, which echo similar results from a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education last month, found that 93 percent of employers agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve major problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” The study also noted that employers placed high value on the application of analytic and problem solving skills. Eighty percent believed that regardless of major, every college student should acquire a broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. The complete survey results make for interesting reading.

In an era where the classical model of a liberal arts education is under attack, legislatures are interested only in funding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, and students (and their parents) are increasingly focused on directly connecting college major to post-college careers, such findings are important. But they also signal the need for faculty to rethink both the content and delivery of our courses and how we communicate the value of our fields.

To develop the skillsets desired by employers, we need to focus on providing more opportunities for students to practice those skills. The traditional read-lecture-test model of education does little to develop the critical thinking, teamwork, negotiation, oral and written communication, and problem solving skills that our students need. Active and problem-based learning strategies are more effective. Ample classroom discussion also helps.

We also need to do a better job helping our students articulate their own skillsets. It’s not enough for our students to say they are good writers or have good teamwork skills. They need to be able to communicate specific examples of how they used those skills and—ideally—provide relevant samples of their work.

It’s in the development of these “soft” skills that our students will be successful.

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