The continuum of political science research

Steve Walt weighs in with his take on the relative virtues of NSF funding of political science.  I agree with a fair amount of what he wrote (in particular the lNSF's listing of sponsored research outputs), but this part brought me up short: 

I can't say that I think Coburn is right, but I'm finding it hard to get too exercised about it. I say this in part because I think a lot of NSF-funded research has contributed to the "cult of irrelevance" that infects a lot of political science, and because the definition of "science" that has guided the grant-making process is excessively narrow.  But I also worry that trying to use federal dollars to encourage more policy-relevant research would end up politicizing academic life in some unfortunate ways.

Walt is conflating two different things here -- "policy-relevant research" and "publicly beneficial research."  Believe it or not, those two terms are not equivalent. 

The implicit assumption in Walt's post -- and a lot of discussions on this topic -- is that if political science research cannot produce policy-relevant advice, then it's not worthy of public funding.  But this gets the argument exactly backwards.  One would assume that, the greater the demand is for policy-relevant research, the more outsourcing and consultancies that would be pursued.  And, indeed, I think that's what you're seeing with the rise of political risk consultancies and the Defense Department's Minerva project. 

The key question to ask is whether that kind of policy-relevant research can be produced out of whole cloth or whether it rests on more basic research into political science and international relations -- the kind of basic research for which the free market would underprovide.  Much of Walt's own research, for example, rests on Kenneth Waltz's Theory of International Politics.  This is a book that proffers very little in the way of useful policy advice.  It is, nevertheless, a foundational text; an awful lot of realists build their policy prescriptions off of that book (and, if memory serves, Waltz received NSF funding to write that book).  Speaking for myself, a lot of what I wrote in All Politics Is Global is cribbed from rests on Albert Hirschman's more abstract work Exit, Voice and Loyalty

There is a continuum of research that exists in the socal sciences.  One could start with basic theoretical work and empirical data collection that seems far removed from policy relevance, and move to finely detailed policy memoranda.  I don't think the latter are terribly useful without resting on the former -- and one could argue that it's the former that would be underprovided without NSF funding. 

But I could very well be wrong -- perhaps policy analysis can be done independently of more abstract theories and models of political science.  That's a discussion worth having.  Requiring NSF-funded projects to have immediate policy relevance, however, cedes way too much terrain to critics of the discipline.  As Nobel-Prize-winning Elinor Ostrom pointed out, sometimes it's worth investigating the seemingly obvious -- because sometimes the obvious is wrong. 


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