Today, political science is under attack.
An amendment to the appropriations bill (H.R. 5326) approved by the U.S. House of Representatives would eliminate funding for political science research from the National Science Foundation. To preclude Senate passage of a similar measure, political scientists like me must explain the field’s contribution to human well-being and international security for members of Congress and the voters to whom they are accountable.
Some critics contend that political science does not deserve funding because the study of society and politics is inadequately scientific. Others claim that the discipline’s methods are too scientific, that this approach is unsuitable for the messy world of politics, and that those skeptical about funding it have a point.
Both views are wrong.
Political science research is rigorous and relevant. It expands human knowledge of the conditions influencing our lives in common. By explaining the events and patterns of the past, we help shed light on the context of today’s choices. We deserve to be funded by the government because our work helps policymakers understand and address pressing public problems.
What is scientific about political science?
Simply put, science is rigorous inquiry using self-conscious and public methods. Political science is the application of these methods to study political behavior, institutions and events. Some political scientists gather statistical data, others administer surveys, conduct interviews, soak and poke in historical archives, observe protests and meetings, and/or study satellite imagery.
What unites the discipline is not uniformity in its methods but a commitment to transparency and accountability in its research in service of the broader public good.
Now, more than ever, the world needs political science. We face huge challenges – terrorism, hunger, civil war, climate change, social inequality – but disagree about solutions. On what basis should our leaders make policy choices? Ideally, scientific evidence, and not ideology or self-interest, will prevail. But policymakers cannot make evidence-based decisions if there is no evidence.
Political science research tackles the most compelling concerns of our time.
Consider James Fearon and David Laitin’s work on civil war, impugned by Jacqueline Stevens in a recent New York Times. They ask: When do grievances lead to armed insurgencies and devastating conflicts provoking thousands of deaths, and when are they resolvable through more peaceful means? They show that civil wars are more likely in countries with poor, weak states and geographical conditions favoring insurgent armies.
In light of the threats to international security posed by the wars in Syria and Sudan, don’t we want to support scholarship on these questions?
My own work with Laurel Weldon focuses on advances in women’s rights in 70 countries. Though women are half the world’s population and their education and employment holds the key to bringing countries out of poverty, many governments discriminate against them in law and in practice.
We map the extent of discrimination worldwide and identify its political and societal correlates, showing that feminist movements triggered most episodes of liberalizing reform. Empowered civil societies can promote reform.
Governments regularly bring in political scientists to consult on writing new constitutions and designing electoral systems. Banks and investment firms use political science knowledge to assess political and economic stability and calculate the risks of sovereign debt default. International organizations and NGOs draw on our work to design policies to combat poverty and improve social services.
Doesn’t it make more sense for taxpayers to spend a few million dollars funding political science research prior to a few billion on foreign interventions? Shouldn’t we fund studies of the politics of remote places before we send our soldiers into battle? Don’t we want to know how policies and institutional reforms have worked in the past and in other countries before we spend time and money implementing them?
Political science will not solve the world’s problems. But it offers helpful tools to those we elect to do so.