Thursday, May 10, 2012


Over at the Monkey Cage, John Sides comments on the House of Representatives' recent vote to defund the Political Science program at the National Science Foundation, explaining the usefulness of his own recent NSF-funded research. While I am certainly not thrilled about this vote, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing for scientists receiving government funds to occasionally explain to the public just what they're doing and why it might be valuable.

I should mention that I (along with Michael Heaney, Joanne Miller, and Dara Strolovitch) received a relatively small NSF grant (about $30,000) a few years ago to conduct a survey of activists and delegates at the 2008 Republican and Democratic national conventions. The bulk of that money went toward hiring a few dozen undergraduate and graduate students in Denver and Minneapolis to conduct the survey and training them in how to do survey research. I still hear back from some of those students, who tell me how valuable the training was and how memorable the whole experience was.

The research itself, meanwhile, has yielded one published paper, one that's under review, and another that's still being written. We've found, among other things, some cultural distinctions between the two parties in how they work with interest groups, some interesting evidence about how the Democratic party managed its divisions after the Clinton/Obama primary battle, and some notable differences in the evaluation of female candidates across both major parties. The research covers two main areas -- differences between the major parties and the use of convention caucuses -- which haven't received a lot of attention in previous research. While focused on parties, the research isn't advancing any agenda for one party or another; it's simply trying to better understand how they function and how people and groups interact with them. I don't know that this work is "transformative" (which apparently is a new standard for meriting government support), but it is interesting and useful, and it tells us some things we didn't know before. And the evidence was gathered by struggling students who ended up with some useful training and some extra spending money in their wallets.

I might also mention a small NSF grant ($12,000) I received in grad school, which allowed me and Jeff Lewis to compile a complete roll call vote record for the California Assembly going back to 1849. (You can download the resulting ideal points here at the bottom of the page.) This research was essential to my book and an AJPS article, and it has been used by several other scholars in related research.

Now, these aren't large grants by any means. But for a scholar located at a liberal arts school in a small department with no graduate students and paltry research funds, they make an enormous difference. It's the difference between conducting research and, well, not. Assuming the federal government has an interest in promoting research (I believe the Constitution mentions something about promoting the "progress of science and useful arts"), this strikes me as a very good investment.


Rob said...

I know you're being facetious about the Constitution, but for those less knowledgeable than you, we should point out that the provision you quote states in full as among Congress's powers, "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." In other words, Congress is empowered to create copyrights and patents. That provision has nothing whatsoever to do with promoting science by underwriting research.

I'm not suggesting Congress doesn't have the power to underwrite general political science research, though it's an interesting question as to which provision of Section 8 would authorize such legislation. Maybe we should apply for an NSF grant to study the question.

Seth Masket said...

I wasn't being all that facetious. Yes, you're certainly correct that the line was in the context of patents and copyrights, but clearly the Founders considered the promotion of science and the arts (the useful ones, anyway) a legitimate activity of the federal government.

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