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. 

Daniel W. Drezner

The renaissance of political science

Following up on the Tom Coburn saga, Patricia Cohen has a round-up in the New York Times about whether the study of political science contributes to the public good.  Some excerpts: 

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.

[Full disclosure:  I'm not now on the editorial board of Perspectives on Politics, and therefore am obligated to link to Isaac's Chronicle of Higher Education essay on this topic.]

Coburn's focus has been on the past ten years, and I think the biggest irony of that focus is that, compared to a decade ago, there's more policy-relevant research and less paradigmatic navel-gazing. 

[Got any hard evidence, smart guy?--ed.]  This is very tough to measure (if only we had an NSF grant!), but consider the following:

I'm planning on posting why I think political sciece is in better shape than it was a decade ago later in the week.  But for now, a question to readers:  are these examples persuasive, or do you need to see more evidence?