07 October 2009

Excising Waste Fraud & Abuse from the Federal Budget: Dr. Tom Punks Political Science

"In 2007, NSF issued a directive to emphasize the transformative nature of NSF‟s research. This directive requires every proposal to explain how it will provide transformative concepts. Again, it is a stretch to claim that the any of the political science research being funded by NSF qualifies as transformative.

During this time of economic challenges, few taxpayers, in fact, would believe that the NSF‟s political science program is contributing to our nation‟s ability to meet future challenges in science, engineering, or innovation." - Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R - Oklahoma)
I placed Tom Coburn's picture on the right for a reason. Dr. Tom has offered an amendment to the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill which would eliminate the National Science Foundation's political science program. This has put many of my colleagues into a tizzy - with emails imploring me (among many others) to contact my Senators and so forth.

You can read the text of read Dr. Tom's amendment here. Now, it seems clear to me that Dr. Tom has no clue what "real science" is. But that is true too of both the Social Science Directorate at NSF and the vast majority of my colleagues here at Rochester and elsewhere. There is lot's of talk about science in a sort of honorific way - used mostly to dismiss research and writing by those of us deemed un-scientific. But mostly, too, what we get are diffuse gestures toward a vaguely positivist - and so laughable - sketch of the scientific enterprise. And when, as has happened to me on many occasions, one asks just what political science might amount to, what you get are patronizing looks. It surely will not look like anything "transformative" because that would involve engaging with politics and policy in a sustained way. And scientists on the positivist view surely cannot do that!

But Dr. Tom looked and saw that what is happening in political science (at least as funded by NSF) does not match his view of science insofar as it tends not to yield engineering applications. And, to him, anything that looked vaguely as if it might make contact with real world politics smelled an awful lot to him like, well, politics.

I do not support Coburn's know-nothing views. And I will contact my Senators. (One might ask why he is not out there castigating his fellow Republicans when they question evolution or climate science, but that is another quesiton.) But political scientists have asked for this. It will be interesting to see what they say beyond "it is to a science!"

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Blogger Joe Zammit-Lucia said...

This is an interesting post and, of course, raises the point that everyone in academia seems to believe that they have to be some form of 'scientist' and employ 'scientific method' to be taken seriously. In my opinion this idiocy has led to nothing but rampant mediocracy where crunching numbers and talking in unintelligible jargon has become a substitute for thought - as well as seemingly being the only way to get on.

Good for the Senator to show us just how low we have sunk.

Joe Zammit-Lucia

10 October, 2009 11:36  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I part the social sciences are enamored of "science" for bad philosophical reasons - bad, at least, if they understand science as anything more than systematic, disciplined inquiry. That, of course, leaves open what counts as systematic and disciplined - and there the science-envy is truly damaging, as you say, to the ability to think.

there also are incentives, though. Science is where the money is. And the prestige. So it is not a moral failing of individuals as much as an institutional pathology.

Finally, the epidemic of jargon and aversion to thought comes also is rampant among those who we might deem luddites - those who think that if we are not scientists we must embrace the shallowness of too much of the humanities.

Thanks for the comment.

10 October, 2009 11:50  

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