The Trump era has made this a bit difficult, however. The problem is that the pace of Trump-generated news has accelerated so quickly that even spending an hour away from the news means that one misses a few norm-shattering headlines. Wednesday night, for example:
I’m hardly the only person experiencing this phenomenon during the first two weeks of the Trump administration:
For political scientists in particular, these first two weeks have been exhausting. Friends and colleagues have commented on how the flurry of tweets, executive orders, protests, counter-protests and news leaks have seemed overwhelming.
This is a problem for the discipline, for two reasons. First, the opportunity costs can be great. Research programs take months or years to gear up. They can’t just come to a crashing halt. Well, actually, they can, but that usually doesn’t end well for the political scientist seeking promotion or publication. Second, it is undeniable that most political scientists, like most academics, are pretty liberal in their orientation. The conflation of normative horror at what Trump is doing threatens to warp attempts at a more positivist analysis of Trump’s political and policy effects. Or, worse, it will just cause political scientists to abandon their primary areas of research and obsess about the guy in the Oval Office.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is not immune to these problems. I am fortunate that I largely finished my major research project from last year and am now casting about for new things to work on.
I am, however, somewhat familiar with the interplay between things like blogging and more rigorous research. As someone who is further down the learning curve, let me proffer a few survival tips for political scientists trying to cope with the new reality of the Trump administration.
1) It’s going to be like this for a spell. As noted previously this week, all new administrations make rookie mistakes in the weeks and months after Inauguration Day. So maybe, as Cabinet and other officials get confirmed, and as Trump’s White House staff moves along its own learning curve, the pace of mistakes and norm violations will slow down.
The thing is, I don’t think this will be true for quite some time. Trump is way behind on staffing up his Cabinet, as this handy-dandy Post tracker makes clear. Furthermore, Trump’s style is so at odds with previous presidents’, and his staff’s worldview is so at odds with prior presidents’, that even anodyne moments wind up generating news. We’re talking about a White House that managed to make both Holocaust Remembrance Day and the first day of Black History Month controversy-generating news cycles. Phone calls with close allies are now fraught with peril. This triggers reactions from other actors, which generate further news cycles, which will generate more Trump tweets in defense or deflection. Staff turmoil and discontent will generate more profiles and weak attempts at spin control.
This will be the new normal for longer than anyone of any political persuasion wants it to be.
2) Redirect your research, but be smart about it. It’s okay to redirect one’s research stream in response to real-world events. Terrorism was considered a backwater area of research, and then 9/11 happened, and a lot of scholars who knew little about the topic dived in. My own research projects have often pivoted in response to real-world events. So go ahead and follow the news!
That said, make sure you have properly framed your research question before proceeding — or, at least, nail down the areas of inquiry that would animate you. As with its presidential campaign, the Trump administration will be generating a cornucopia of natural experiments in its first year. Figure out which natural experiment interests you, figure out how to measure the variables and outcomes, and then start process-tracing!
3) Don’t count on federal funding. I would put cash money down on the Trump administration cutting National Science Foundation funding for the social and economic sciences. The total budget is a bit more than $100 million, which is one of those figures that sounds huge to the public even though eliminating it entirely would have a negligible effect on fiscal probity. But it would be a popular move with Trump supporters and pundits bending over backward to find something to agree with Trump about in a visible display of fair-mindedness. Other political-science-relevant research funding from the federal government might persist, but anything overtly focusing on the American presidency might be problematic.
My advice would be to look for funding from foundations rather than the government. Of course, some macro trends within the world of philanthropy will present its own challenges for researchers. But that is a question best left to forthcoming books.
There is probably more and better advice that I could proffer. But, to be honest, I’m too exhausted to think of it right now. Plus, I’ve been writing this up for a while. So excuse me while I go see what the Trump administration has done this morning while I was away.