Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Just How Relevant Is Political Science?

From the New York Times, "Field Study: Just How Relevant Is Political Science?":

After Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, this month proposed prohibiting the National Science Foundation from “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects,” political scientists rallied in opposition, pointing out that one of this year’s Nobel winners had been a frequent recipient of the very program now under attack.

Yet even some of the most vehement critics of the Coburn proposal acknowledge that political scientists themselves vigorously debate the field’s direction, what sort of questions it pursues, even how useful the research is.

Much of the political science work financed by the National Science Foundation is both rigorous and valuable, said Jeffrey C. Isaac, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, where one new winner of the Nobel in economic science, the political scientist Elinor Ostrom, teaches. “But we’re kidding ourselves if we think this research typically has the obvious public benefit we claim for it,” he said. “We political scientists can and should do a better job of making the public relevance of our work clearer and of doing more relevant work.”

Mr. Isaac is the editor of Perspectives on Politics, a journal that was created by the field’s professional organization to bridge the divide after a group of political scientists led a revolt against the growing influence of statistical methods and mathematics-based models in the discipline. In 2000 an anonymous political scientist who called himself Mr. Perestroika roused scores of colleagues to protest the organization, the American Political Science Association, and its flagship journal, The American Political Science Review, arguing that the two were marginalizing scholars who focused on traditional research based on history, culture and archives.

Though there is still jockeying over jobs, power and prestige — particularly in an era of shrinking budgets — much of that animus has quieted, and most political scientists agree that a wide range of approaches makes sense.

What remains, though, is a nagging concern that the field is not producing work that matters. “The danger is that political science is moving in the direction of saying more and more about less and less,” said Joseph Nye, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, whose work has been particularly influential among American policy makers. “There are parts of the academy which, in the effort to be scientific, feel we should stay away from policy,” Mr. Nye said, that “it interferes with the science.”

In his view statistical techniques too often determine what kind of research political scientists do, pushing them further into narrow specializations cut off from real-world concerns. The motivation to be precise, Mr. Nye warned, has overtaken the impulse to be relevant.
There's more at the link.

This is an ancient debate, actually, and it's not going away any time soon. I don't think Coburn made the right call in attacking political science. He's a doctor himself, and no doubt lots of experimental - and ultimately unfruitful - research in medicine has been funded with the same basic kinds of grants as the NSF program the senator is targeting.

That said, check what folks on the research side of things are saying over at
The Monkey Cage. The APSA has related information on and responses to Tom Coburn.

(P.S. I really like Coburn politically, so I'm interested to see how this controversy plays out.)