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Time to Cut Government Funding For PoliSci Research?

The academic world has gone into high dudgeon this week thanks to proposals from Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake to cut nearly $11 million in federal funding to political science programs throughout the country. Via Meadia friend and esteemed colleague Roger Berkowitz weighs in on the matter in a post at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center blog:

I don’t want to disparage the research, which I am sure will be of interest to a subset of academic political scientists. This research may even, over years, produce insights that gradually merge with the fruits of other research to change and even improve our understanding of how multiparty negotiations impact complicated international topics. And, yes, $700,000 is less than a drop in the bucket in the federal budget. But when looking at the Federal Budget, at a time when students are being forced into bankruptcy because they can’t repay student debt, is this where the government should be spending its money?

Congressman Flake, who I never have heard of before happens to have a Masters degree in Political Science; he understands that these grants have multiple uses. First, they advance the general knowledge of the social sciences. They also advance the careers of the political scientists who win them.  What is more, the vast majority of the funds dispersed go to subsidize the administrative costs at our nation’s colleges and universities. And here is where the proposed funding looks mighty suspect.

The researchers proposing this study are from Dartmouth. Dartmouth is a fine school, also a small school that happens to have an endowment of over $3 Billion dollars.

Read the whole thing.

As we’ve had occasion to note here at Via Meadia, the US currently produces far too much “academic research,” and much of it is worthless. Some of the worthless research is directly subsidized by government grants; some of it is indirectly subsidized by academics in taxpayer supported universities whose job descriptions divide their responsibilities between teaching and research; some of it is paid in the form of tuition by students and parents on the same basis. And finally, some of the worthless research is produced on their own time by academics trying to beef up their prospects for promotion and tenure.

There is a real baby and bathwater problem here. While much academic research is so worthless that not even other academics in the same field bother to read it, some of this research represents high triumphs of the human spirit, opens the door to new medical treatments, or otherwise deepens our understanding of the world around us and increases our ability to live richer, better lives.

The reconstruction of the American university is going to take some time, and nobody knows now exactly how the new system should look. In general, Via Meadia thinks that the “research model” works less well in the humanities and in most social sciences than it does in the natural sciences. In many cases, undergraduate teaching could be separated from scholarly research with no loss to the quality of undergraduate education — and perhaps a substantial gain.

In any case, we think Congressman Flake’s proposals deserve a fair and careful hearing. The policy usefulness of most political science research is at best questionable; at a time of tight government budgets it makes sense to look hard at non-essentials.


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  • Anthony

    Research model and policy usefulness are structural concerns meriting consideration going forward as you intimate inevitable reconstruction. Yet again, what is beneath surface is economics and whether current American university model remains sustainable (that said, quality scholarly research remains societal sine qua non).

  • Kuze

    Well, I imagine this will be framed as anti-intellectualism. As usual, instead of looking at the efficacy of the spending, interested parties will look at the title and intent of the spending at decry cutting it.

  • Kris

    “at a time of tight government budgets it makes sense to look hard at non-essentials.”

    I am increasingly taken by Dave Barry’s suggestion:

    I would eliminate all giant federal departments — Transportation, Commerce, Interior, Exterior, etc. — and replace them with a single entity, called the Department of Louise. This would consist of a woman named Louise, selected on the basis of being a regular taxpaying individual with children and occasional car trouble and zero experience in government. The Department of Louise would have total veto power over everything. Before government officials could spend any money, they’d have to explain the reason to Louise and get her approval.
    “Louise,” they’d say, “We want to take several billion dollars away from the taxpayers and build a giant contraption in Texas so we can cause tiny invisible particles to whiz around and smash into each other and break into even tinier particles.”
    And Louise would say: “No.”
    Or the officials would say: “Louise, we want to use a half million taxpayer dollars to restore the childhood home of Lawrence Welk.”
    And Louise would say: “No.”
    Or the officials would say: “Louise, we’d like to give the Syrians a couple million dollars to reward them for going almost a week without harboring a terrorist.”
    And Louise would say: “No.”
    Or the officials might say: “Louise, we want to …”
    And Louise would say: “No.”

    (Now, I realize that this seems ridiculous, but let’s cut Barry some slack. After all, back in those innocent days of 1991, the amounts mentioned in this excerpt actually seemed like a lot of money. How quaint!)

  • Walter Sobchak

    Contrary to Antony, “scholarly research”, which has not happened since Mommsen died, is an utter waste of time and money, and we would all live longer and happier lives if the government did not waste money on it. Grant recipients should instead focus on important questions, such as: “Do you want fries with that?”.

  • Cunctator

    I have always believed that programme grants and money given to departments above and beyond ordinary operating budgets should be cut. Instead, the focus of extraordinary grants should be scholarships awarded on merit to students.

  • thibaud

    Did I read this right? Is the author really discussing a federal budget line item of not $11 billion, or $1.1 billion, or $111 million but _$11 MILLION_?

    If you want to save $11 million out of public university funding, don’t cut research. Use the threat of withdrawals of federal subsidies to force universities to cut administrative overhead.

    Here’s data from the AuH2O Institute on the increase in per-student spending, adjusted for inflation, from 1993-2007 for
    1) Research
    2) Instruction
    3) Administration

    1) Research: increased 38%, from ca $7k to $10k per student
    2) Instruction: increased 39%, from ca $9k to $12k per student
    3) Administration: increased 61%, from ca $5k to $8k per student.

    It gets worse: this is data for public and private universities blended. For private universities only, the increase in admin spend per student was 110% – from ca $8k per student in 1993 to $18k per student in 2007 !!

    If the increase in admin spend had been held to the level of the increase in research spend – for private universities alone – we could save about $7k per private student per year, or s.t. on the order of $5-10 BILLION, with a “b.”

    Maybe the distinguished Flake from Arizona could read the report and start focusing his budget knife on the real bloat in academe?

  • Luke Lea

    Academic economics is in a state of high decadence. But that’s another matter.

  • SC Mike

    There are numerous foundations out there as well as think tanks that can step in to fund political science and other research. Heritage, the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and others owe their existence in part to the leftist domination of academia, offering a base for scholars to conduct valuable research that would otherwise not get done.

    Would this leave research in the hands of ideologues, partisans, and charlatans? No more than it is now.

    Let’s do the same for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: cut off access to the federal teat and let private individuals and enterprises fund it.

    I make this proposal with some regret, realizing full well that the billion$ in subsidies to Via Media generate overhead used for the upkeep of stately Mead Manor. The price is steep, but the New Austerity demands it.

  • Anthony

    High quality scholarly research continues and provides world with not only technical/scientific advances but also enriches himan development; conflating abusive government funding and quality scholarly research is at best disingenuous (as well as subjective) and at worst faulty thinking.

  • Anthony

    Correction: …enriches human development.

  • Tom

    1. This place has spoken about administrative costs several times.
    2. Speaking as a poli sci major, I can tell you that most of the research being put out today probably isn’t worth the money.

  • Chase

    Folks, let’s not forget one crucial fact. Academics have been doing this kind of research for decades. Yet, in decades past, Universities, public and private, were MUCH more affordable than they are now. Tuition increases are not caused by academic research. Since the percentage of university faculty that is tenured is lower than it was before, and getting lower, it’s clear that the money from tuition increases is making into the professor’s pockets. Adjuncts are paid miserable wages are often do not get benefits.

    There is one way to fix this mess. If the government allows students to discharge private students loans in bankruptcy in the future – the constitution prohibits past loans from be retroactively altered by the government – the banks will place limits on how much students can borrow. This will force many universities to cut costs drastically because there aren’t enough trust fund babies to keep them going at their current prices.

  • Josh S

    If something is valuable, people won’t have to be forced to fund it. Think-tanks that do social/political research survive on grants. Private companies give grants to universities for scientific research all the time. And ever heard of Bell Labs?

    Yeah, the line item is small, but a wise man once said, “He who can be trusted in little can be trusted in much” or something like that.

  • Daedalus Mugged

    My take is that there should be a split between undergrad/masters (teaching focus) and Doctoral level (research focus) institutions. If you are getting a bachelors os masters degree, you need to understand the foundations of the field, and professors focused on teaching can adequately convey up to date understanding of the field. If you want a PhD, you need to be on the bleeding edge, where new advances are made. Ultimately, the research/think tank type model is for doctoral students, post docs and research focused PhDs exploring the boundaries of knowledge in the field. Bachelors and Masters programs are for teaching focused PhDs to teach masses of students the existing knowledge of the field.

  • Denton

    How about just forbidding any of the grant money to be used for overhead? At the local university I taught at, 53% of any science grant went for overhead. Most of that funded the administration and special interest departments – the same ones that survive only because the University makes some of their classes mandatory for all majors. Because most college students aren’t really dumb enough to think you can find a job with a degree in human rights or women studies.

  • constitution First

    P.S. is down to a science alright.. They’ve made a science out of corruption, ideology and giving away the nation treasure to the loudest whiners.

    The Rule of Holes applies here.

  • Alan

    I actually have a PhD in Political Science (emphasis on public administration), and I can attest that no harm to the public interest would result from eliminating federal subsidies for social science research. Even for Economics, which is the most respectable of social sciences.

  • CatoRenasci

    There was research long before it was subsidized and there will be research long after the subsidies are gone – most of it was twaddle before subsidy, most of it is twaddle now, and most of it will be twaddle without subsidy.

    Cut the public funds altogether.

  • VA Teacher

    This is a great idea, but there is an obvious next step: no Federal grants or subsidized loans to humanities students. We have more humanities degree holders than jobs for them. It does nobody any good to subsidize the creation of more (except college administrators with six figure incomes…talk about corporate welfare!)

    If you want Federal aid, go into a STEM major. If you want to study humanities, pay your own way. If you don’t have the chops for STEM and don’t have the money to pay your own way, you can get subsidized job training for something that IS in demand…like machine tool operator, welder, oil field worker, etc….

  • Corlyss

    “some of this research represents high triumphs of the human spirit,”

    Name one that wasn’t a work of your own authorship. Just one.

  • Walter Sobchak

    thibaud: So what if it is only $11 million. It is borrowed money, that is borrowed needlessly, and therefore unwisely. The federal government shouldn’t do it. And, BTW I don’t think the Federal Government should be spending any money on institutions of higher education. Subsidizing he is not among its constitutional powers.

    Anthony: You have twice made the assertion that there is something that reasonable men could call “high quality scholarly research”. Outside of the physical and biological sciences, can you show us any such thing. My assertion is that Mommsen’s demise marked the end of that sot of thing.

    The ball is in your court to produce something resembling evidence.

  • jonathan rubinstein

    Defining an effective role for the federal government in education and research is one of several fundamental questions that needs to be resolved in the coming srtruggle over Federalism and reform of our dying Republic. We have a destructive, bloated and utterly corrupted system that merges research and social goals in this funding. It has led to the gradual and irrevocable corrupting of many noble institutions. First, the government must restore its own laboratories and research facilities to their pristine place. Federal funding has created a class system in higher education which has had a destructive impact on campus life, bloated administrative life, and encouraged class warfare to no useful effect. All funding and testing for public education directly to schools has to end. There is no role for government in public education, no matter what pressing social spectre is invoked. We have literally millions of young children who have no education, are illiterate and will remain a threat to the existence of the Republic unless we reverse one of most deleterious consequences of failed integration policies. Fifty years of corrupt failure since LBJ is enough. We have seen countless cities die and more to come unless we revive federalism and begin the arduous work of educating our citizens to read and then to work. Period.

  • Claude Hopper

    Long ago, when I worked for a private company, I proposed using a university wave tank to study wave forces on a cylinder. The engineering department that ran the facility estimated what their costs would be and then added 30% for funds that would go to the liberal arts department. The cost exceeded our budget and we rejected that option. Then the engineering department proposed another method of payment that excluded the overhead and we went ahead with the project. Neither we or the engineering department wanted to see our funds being wasted by the liberal arts department.

  • Foobarista

    I’ve always thought that research and teaching are fundamentally opposed, and this has been the elephant in the room in all the discussions of university issues. University instructors are required to get the PhD degree, which is focused on research, while receiving less formal training in instruction than kindergarten teachers. Also, nearly all academic incentives for getting tenure, getting promoted, and general status among one’s peers are focused on research success, not teaching success. It’s considered a mark of professional achievement if a professor can get to a level in his career where he can “escape” teaching altogether, other than maybe a couple of annual seminars for grad students.

    If you’re an undergrad at a big research university, you’re definitely seen as a necessary evil by much of the faculty.

  • chuckR

    thibaud and denton have it right. Administrative bloat and assorted grievance studies programs take a too-large chunk of grant funding and funding in general.

  • Chartermom

    I’m with Daedalus Mugged — most colleges and universities should be focused on teaching and not research. Back in the late 70’s, I remember my university proudly advertising its “teaching faculty” and being perplexed because as a naive student, I thought that teaching was the focus of faculty. I later came to understand that my university (at least when I was there)was more interested in faculty being teachers first and researchers second. And there were some great teachers. I also remember that as a business student some of my best teachers were adjuncts who taught only one or two courses and spent the rest of their time actually working in the field they taught. They were teaching because they wanted to teach — not because they wanted to research and forced to teach. For the liberal arts classes the teachers were able to keep up with their field instead of being bogged down in their own little research niche — it led to teachers who had and could share a pretty broad perspective and didn’t have a particular niche to defend. Now the argument is probably different for the hard sciences and technical fields — but then political science research isn’t for that kind of research. I say to Representative Flake — cut away! In the end the students will likely benefit.

  • David R. Graham

    “The reconstruction of the American university is going to take some time, and nobody knows now exactly how the new system should look.”

    Commenters dance around the gist of that sentence – “reconstruction,” “new system” – talking, in effect, about moving chairs on a crumbling ship. Reconstruction of the ship, or laying down a new one, is indicated.

    Not sure “nobody knows now exactly” is quite true, but the point about reconstruction is. Here is an outline of an effort, published on a good friend’s blog, to see how the new system looks, constructed in the mid-1980s to guide our family’s homeschooling efforts.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    I think you’re just dealing with Sturgeon’s Law here: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Sturgeon’s Law is valid at all scales, across all subject matter. So the only question that’s useful to ask is, “Is the 10% non-crap that I get by throwing money at this particular area worth it?” In some cases the answer will be yes, in other cases no. But the 90% that’s crap is invariant.

  • John Burke

    It is hard to see what is the justification for any taxpayer funding to academic research in either the social sciences or the humanities. Set aside the overwhelming left wing orientation of academics and the fact remains that most such research lacks any smidgen of a “public good” or any tangible reward to society as a whole. While some is worthwhile, one can hardly assume that government bureaucrats, much less Congressmen, are in a position to decide what is worthy. Anyway, full-time academics already enjoy big taxpayer subsidies to their salaries and benefits through student grants and loans as well as direct support to public colleges. That’s enough.

    Even in the hard sciences, where taxpayer support makes sense, we should be more discriminating. In many cases, public funds generate advances that lead to universities and professors launching companies that make money for them but not the public treasury. However, I must admit that I have no idea how to discriminate.

  • Anthony

    @21 Sobchak: Obviously you misinterpreted my response to Quick Take; nevertheless, to end this query on a civil note: see Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature) for 21st century high quality scholarly research contribution.

    Also, permit me to add that it is not the duty of the critic to suggest ways of improving a bad show; after he has pronounced upon it his job is finished. A wide public (read blog commenter) however thinks otherwise and believes it (he) stymies a critic when it (he) says: the ball is in your court, what can you produce? The presumption is that this will be diffcult or impossible to do – cf. Steven Pinker (high quality scholarly research sans physical/biological areas of study. I trust we can end this thread.

  • Seerak

    Thee is, at this time, no such thing as political “science” in mainstream academia. That field is similar to economics in that I consider someone with “credentials” to be *less qualified* to discuss the topic than a layperson (because of the amount of misinformation and epistemological corruption that the person needs to unlearn prior to dealing with anything resembling facts.)

    So yes, defund it entirely.

  • K Scott

    There is a obscure unit at NIH / NIA called the Division of Behavioral and Social Research (BSR) which is unknown but which is the largest funder of social science research outside the universities. The BSR is funding a new field called biodemography which is a new version of eugenics. The founders and leaders of the field of biodemography [(Prof. James Vaupel (Duke), Prof. James Carey (UCD), Prof. Eileen Crimmins (UCSF), Jason Boardman (U Colorado, Prof. Shripad Tuljapurkar(Stanford)]are all officers or directors of the Society of Biodemography and Social Biology (aka Society for the Study of Social Biology.) Within the field of political science the biodemographers claim to have found a link between various political behaviors and genetics such as a gene for a liberal or conservative orientation. This is an example of how money is being spent without anyone knowing what is going on. For how Senators know what biodemography is? Yet they have authorized spending on this new form of eugenics.

  • willis

    “Maybe the distinguished Flake from Arizona could read the report and start focusing his budget knife on the real bloat in academe?”

    After all, anything done in the name of reasearch, no matter how pointless, can’t possibly be “real bloat.”

  • Fergitful

    Reading Article I of the U. S. Constitution, which enumerates the powers delegated to Congress, I did not find any power for the funding of political science research.

  • richard40

    One other benefit to cutting humanities and poly sci research. Maybe it will get those discliplines back to what they should be doing. For the humanities, that is teaching students to love the classics, like shakespeare, dante, milton, greek/roman literature, and basically anything else that was written at least 100 yrs ago, with the majority being at least 200 yrs ago. I put the cutoff at 100 yrs because if that much time has elapsed, and people think it is still worth learning, it is probably worth something. For poly sci, it is learning about the founders, the declaration, the constitution, and the federalist papers. We can definitely do without more research on how group xxx was oppressed, studies to prove repubs are dumb bigots, investigations into how shakespeare was racist/sexist, or other bs.

  • Mark in Texas

    Walter Sobchack

    Are you referring to Theodor Mommsen who died in 1903, Wilhelm Mommsen who died in 1966, Wolfgang Mommsen who died in 2004 or Hans Mommsen who is still among the living?

  • thibaud

    @33 – “real” in “real bloat” refers to magnitude, impact, importance.

    Administrative bloat is at least an order of magnitude, probably two orders of magnitude, greater than research bloat. Think BILLIONS vs tens of millions.

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