Tag Archives: political science

(Near) Final Thoughts on the Social Science Research Question

Blogging at the Monkey Cage, John Sides posted extensive comments from John Holdren, the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology. Holdren’s speech suggests that the White House is starting to weigh in on the House’s attack on the value of social science research. According to Holdren,

Members of Congress have recently suggested, variously, either that the social sciences are not really science and should not be supported by the taxpayers at all; or that research in political science, at least, should only be supported if the NSF will certify to Congress, for each grant, that the research will advance either the economy or national security (a provision now actually embodied in law in the most recent Continuing Resolution governing spending for the remainder of FY13); or that all taxpayer-funded research should have to pass the test of offering a predictable benefit for some national interest.

Let me therefore be clear about the position of this Administration, as President Obama was in his remarks on Monday at the 150th anniversary meeting of the National Academy of Science.

First, the social and behavioral sciences—which of course include economics, sociology, psychology, and anthropology, as well as political science—are sciences. Researchers in these fields develop and test hypotheses; they publish results in peer-reviewed journals; and they archive data for so that others can replicate their results.

Second, while much of the work in these sciences meets the definition of basic research – expanding our understanding of ourselves and our surroundings – much work in the social and behavioral sciences is aimed at having (or ends up having without being aimed that way) practical application to society’s direct benefit.

Political science research helps us understand the motives and actions of nations and peoples around the world, strengthening our foreign policy, and it helps understand our own democracy and how to make it stronger. Economics research has clarified not only the economic importance of innovation but also its determinants, which in turn have helped us craft policies that effectively promote innovation and thus economic growth.

Social and behavioral research has helped us make hurricane warnings more effective, improve methods of instruction and training in school and in the workplace, and manage commons resources efficiently without centralized regulation. And it has taught us that social-distancing strategies, like staying home from work or school, can be a crucial complement to vaccination strategies when it comes to breaking the transmission of influenza from person to person.

Here’s hoping the House starts to see things his way.

The full transcripts of Holdren’s remarks at the American Association for the Advancement of Science are available here.


Collecting Economic Data

The US Capitol, Washington, DC

The US Capitol, Washington, DC

It seems that House’s war on (political) science is not yet over. House Resolution 1638, The Census Reform Act of 2013, was introduced yesterday. If passed, the legislation would prohibit the U.S. Census from collecting any information beyond the Constitutionally-mandated decennial population count. Specifically, it would end collection of the U.S. agricultural census, the government census, the mid-decade census, and the American Community Survey. The United States, in other words, would lack basic economic data, such as the unemployment rate and the gross domestic product measures which are calculated using data collected by the Census Bureau.

There are many countries which lack regular reporting of basic economic data. In many African countries, for example, annual GDP reports are calculated using base year estimates and an annual multiplier adjustment calculated from a few key indicators. The problem is that the further we move from the base year, the mess accurate the economic measures become. Indeed, the problem was so pronounced in Nigeria that a 2012 revision added nearly $100 billion to the national economy overnight, increasing the size of the economy by 40%. The revision was not based on any real change in the country’s economic output—it was certainly not a function of a dramatic level of economic growth. Rather, it was simply a recalculation of the figure based on more up-to-date (and arguably more accurate) data. In 2010, Ghana similarly experienced a 60 percent increase in its GDP.

So does all this matter? Should we worry about the accuracy of GDP figures in the United States? Or unemployment figures, which would be similarly affected by the proposal? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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.

Remembering Chinua Achebe: Using Fiction in the Political Science Classroom

Nelson Mandela was a fan of Chinua Achebe’s work, having said that while reading Achebe’s novels as a prisoner of Robbin Island for 27 years, “prison walls fell down.” Mandela also said that Achebe’s work, “brought Africa to the rest of the world.”

Nelson Mandela was a fan of Chinua Achebe’s (left) work, having said that while reading Achebe’s novels as a prisoner of Robbin Island for 27 years, “prison walls fell down.” Mandela also said that Achebe’s work, “brought Africa to the rest of the world.”

Nigerian author and poet Chinua Achebe died on Friday. He was 82. Achebe’s work centered on understanding the effects of colonialism and corruption in Africa. His first—and most famous—book was Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the classic text analyzed the clash between African and British colonial values in Nigeria, seeking to understand how local norms and values were undermined by colonialism.

In the book, Obierika comments that, “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Although Achebe was never awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was regularly held in the pantheon of the best African writers, including Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Lewis Nkosi. Achebe also served as a role model for countless younger African authors.

His passing was indeed a tragedy. But it also provided me pause. I had regularly used fiction, most notably Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Nigeria), but also other works such as Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (Zimbabwe), Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel (Nigeria), Chukwuemeka Ike’s Bottled Leopard (Nigeria), and Gillian Slovo’s Red Dust (South Africa), among others, as part of my introductory comparative politics course. Finding myself constantly trying to fit additional materials into the course, I stopped using novels in favor of other (nonfiction) readings covering key themes and debates.

Yet increasingly I suspect that fiction should have a more central place in the class again. Good fiction provides students with an additional avenue to make sense of the issues faced in regions and societies far removed from their own. While a well-written journal article or textbook chapter can covey all the factual information students need, the more emotive, visceral, and evocative learning atmosphere created through fiction speaks to students in a different way. Students, in short, get a better “feel” for the places they are studying.

I’ve provided a few recommendations for books covering several African countries above. I’d welcome recommendations for some of the other regions we typically cover in an intro to comparative politics course. Leave your suggestions below. And thanks!

Constitutional Structures vs. Political Reality in Putin’s Russia

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev are set to swap positions (again) in 2012.

The announcement that former Russian president (and current prime minister) Vladimir Putin plans to assume the presidency again in 2012–a position he can legally hold for up to 12 more years–has provoked a flurry of reponses from political analysts.  Some have expressed surprise and consternation, while others contend this is simply Russian politics as usual.

But these analysts all agree that there is a considerable gap between Russia’s pretensions as a liberal democracy and the reality of how the Kremlin exercises power.  (See the recent discussion, in this blog, of illiberal democracy).  Indeed, Putin’s dominance in recent years bears little resemblance to the distribution of power as envisioned by the constitution.  The Russian constitution invests the president with great authority and the prime minister with little power, yet when Putin relinquished the presidency in 2008 and became prime minister, it was Putin who remained the dominant figure.

Russia therefore provides a vivid example of a common phenomenon in politics: the gap between formal structures, as codified in documents like constitutions or organizational charts, and actual political behavior.  It was precisely this gap that motivated scholars to move from traditional political science (largely concerned with the study of formal documents like constitutions) to behavioral political science (focused on the empirical discovery of patterns of political behavior).  This “behavioral revolution” occurred in the 1950s and 1960s and behavioralism has become the dominant approach among today’s political scientists.  Behavioral political science has been criticized for its lack of concern with normative questions and its allegedly foolhardy efforts to discern lawlike generalizations about inherently unpredictable human behavior, but few would question the fact that its emphasis on actual political behavior has produced important advances over the traditional mode of inquiry.

What other examples of the gap between formal structures and empirical behavior can you identify?  Is the traditional approach to political science of any value today?  What are the shortcomings of the behavioral approach?

How to Write a Political Science Essay

Tip of the hat to Daniel Drezner, whose latest blog entry points out  Henry Farrell’s “Good Writing in Political Science” primer. It’s now required reading for all of my courses!