In May, the House passed the so-called Flake Amendment that prohibits the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding political science research. Jeff Flake, the representative who proposed the funding ban, argued that the money went towards frivolous studies on “gender and political ambition among high school and college students,” “if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do,” and “why political candidates make vague statements.” Flake, who holds a masters degree in political science, summed up his arguments by saying “these studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them.”
While the bill has languished in the Senate during the last two months, political scientists have rallied to restore their funding. Surprisingly, Rep. Flake found support in the opinion pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.
In the Post, Charles Lane echoed Flake’s sentiment. Compared to “hard” science STEM fields, he feels political science and the other “soft” sciences like economics, sociology, and anthropology do not benefit society because they cannot provide definitive answers:
Those who study social behavior — or fund studies of it — are inevitably influenced by value judgments, left, right and center. And unlike hypotheses in the hard sciences, hypotheses about society usually can’t be proven or disproven by experimentation. Society is not a laboratory.
Meanwhile in the Times, Northwestern political science professor Jacqueline Stephens criticized her discipline for focusing on statistics and models, leading to conclusions that are “obvious” and fail to predict major events like the collapse of the Soviet Union. She supports the Flake Amendment as wakeup call to the discipline, suggesting her colleagues should stop pretending to be scientists and embrace a more narrative, historically based, humanistic approach.
What these criticism highlight are two debates about political science. One is an internal debate about the nature of the discipline. Political science, like the other social sciences, occupies an awkward middle ground between the sciences and the humanities. While political science grew out of philosophy, it has tried to distinguish itself from the humanities by embracing an objective, scientific method. Yet within the discipline, some like Stephen tend towards the more humanistic side while others the scientific. This division leads to more debates about what is important to study and what explains what we see. As a result, political science runs in many directions with less internal cohesion than, say economics, At least, this is how it appears to a second year college student.
Though these debate may sound incredibly academic, they play themselves out in the public face of the discipline. When political science has trouble defining itself, others step in to see the void. When they see the results political science produces, they seem to define it with one word: useless. Thus, people like Rep. Flake, Charles Lane, and half the House of Representative are willing to say political science is unworthy of public funding.
I disagree. I should say I am a student of political science, and right now, my work as a research assistant to a political scientist is providing my paycheck. Clearly, I think political science is interesting and worthwhile. I think it helps us understand the society we live in and why we see poverty, hunger, and illness. Yet I also acknowledge that is my opinion, just as other’s have their opinions. Whether or not political science is a field of study that should be pursued and should receive public funding are questions of opinion. There is no right answer to these questions. If we want a question that we can address objectively and answer correctly, by which I mean providing an explanations that matches the facts, then we must ask objective questions.
The objective question to ask here is why political science has been funded by the state and why now there is resistance to doing so. These are questions we can use evidence and theory to find a correct answer. Yet, they are questions that may not be answered with NSF funding. The Senate will vote on the amendment in August and I don’t know if they will uphold the funding ban. I’m a (wannabe) political scientist, and apparently, we’re not good at making predictions.