Charles Lane takes on social science in The Post today, supporting Jeff Flake’s House-passed amendment to strip political science funding out of the National Science Foundation — and arguing that such a move should be extended to all the social sciences. He’s dead wrong.
The core of Lane’s argument is the hackneyed argument that social sciences just aren’t “real” science. Never mind that’s a useless distinction or that plenty of social scientists, including many political scientists — contrary to Lane’s claims — use experiments to test hypotheses. (Full disclosure: I’m a political scientist, although I’ve never had or applied for NSF money.)
The debate over what’s “real” science should be nowhere near the serious question of which things should receive government funding. Nor should Lane, or anyone, be fooled into thinking that somehow social sciences are inherently more subjective than “hard” sciences; a quick look around will show that any science can introduce biases and, as a result, wind up with bogus findings. This is a difficulty that all research, and not just social science research, must deal with — and as Seth Masket argues today, political science is not particularly prone to those biases.
Lane’s other argument is that “if this research is as valuable as its proponents say, someone other than the U.S. Treasury will pay for it.”
And for that, I think the answer is pretty straightforward. In fact, I’ll quote Lane himself:
The private sector chronically underinvests in basic scientific research; the costs and risks are relatively high, and the benefits relatively hard to commercialize. Government support compensates for this “market failure,” enabling society to reap “positive externalities” — economic, environmental or military.
That’s a good, and relatively straightforward, argument for funding social science research, too.
Does Lane really think that no social science applications matter for understanding and improving the economy, the environment or the military? Economists, psychologists, sociologists and, yes, political scientists would sharply disagree.
Does Lane really not believe that, right now, it would be good to know about the difficulties in governing confederations (such as Europe), or about civil wars and transitions to democracy (such as in Egypt, Syria, Libya and more), or about how to increase voter turnout in the United States? Those are the sorts of things that political scientists study; they seem to clearly meet Lane’s criteria for funding, at least once the silly “real science” thing is put aside. (For many specific examples and similar points, see here, here and here.)
But if it’s true that chemistry and physics often cannot find funding for basic research because there’s no immediate commercial payoff, the same is surely true of social sciences.
I’m agnostic on the question of who should make these decisions — I appreciate the objective process that the NSF uses to fund research, but on principle I (unlike many of my fellow social scientists) have no problem with politicians stepping in and getting involved; that’s democracy for you.
But while I have no problem with the process of Congress getting involved, I think Jeff Flake — and Charles Lane — are just totally wrong on this one. There’s simply no reason to believe that political science in particular, and the social sciences in general, are bad buys for the federal government.