Academic funding and the public interest: The death of political science

Defunding disciplines like political science means “losing research of value”, writes Kendzior.

Tom Coburn
The Coburn amendment prohibits the National Science Foundation from funding political science research that does not explicitly promote "national security or the economic interests of the United States" [AP]

In October 2012, I criticised the academic paywall system, which requires that ordinary people pay exorbitant prices to access scholarly work. I predicted that this system would lead to a loss of funding for academic research:

In the United States, granting agencies like the National Science Foundation have come under attack by politicians who believe they fund projects irrelevant to public life. But by denying the public access to their work, academics do not allow taxpayers to see where their money is spent. By refusing to engage a broader audience about their research, academics ensure that few will defend them when funding for that research is cut.

My prediction came true. On March 20, 2013, the US Senate passed the Coburn amendment, an initiative which prohibits the National Science Foundation from funding political science research that does not explicitly promote “national security or the economic interests of the United States”.

As a result, the NSF – which currently funds 61 percent of American political science research – will retract nearly all its support. “It’s going to be hard for big political science to continue,” says John McIver, who ran NSF’s Political Science Program in the mid-1990s. Topics the NSF funded in the past included political participation, voting patterns and public culture. What political scientists would have been wise to examine is the culture of academia itself.

The loss of NSF funding is a loss for American political science and for Americans. But it is understandable that most Americans do not recognise the significance of this loss. Academia rewards social scientists who prohibit the spread of knowledge more than those who share it. From paywalls to jargon to a tacit moratorium on social media, academics build careers through public disengagement. They should not be surprised when the public then fails to see the relevance of their work.

Attack on political science funding

Despite its pleas for fiscal prudence, Congress’ attack on political science funding has little to do with money. The NSF Political Science Program costs $11m out of an annual NSF budget of $7.8bn, or less than 0.2 percent. Cutting it will hardly free up funds for the “next-generation robotic limbs” or “life-saving hurricane detection systems” that Senator Tom Coburn, the Republican who spearheaded the cuts, envisions replacing desultory political science rot.

What lies behind the attack on political science? Some have suggested that politicians are reluctant to become the objects of objective research. “Studies of Americans’ attitudes toward the Senate filibuster hold little promise to save an American’s life,” protests Coburn, a senator who regularly uses the filibuster.

Others have noted the anti-intellectualism of the Republican Party and Congress’ refusal to recognise work that does not produce immediate, positive change. (You know, like Congress does.) Supporters of the Coburn amendment argue that academic research is elitist and impractical. “After four years of desperately searching in vain for how my degree could make the world a better place, the lack of real-world impact convinced me to leave a PhD programme in political science,” writes Atlantic writer Greg Ferenstein, in a plea to defund his discipline. 

“The paywall sends a signal to the public that their interest in scholarship is unwelcome, even though their money may have helped pay for it.”

Arguments over impact and relevance ignore academia’s complicity in its own demise. The biggest problem for academics is not that their work lacks value. It is that the public’s ability to determine the value of academic work is limited by academia itself.

In the aftermath of the Coburn amendment, political scientists took to the internet to translate NSF project descriptions from academese. “Do we really know what turns an impoverished young man into a criminal, a gang member, or a terrorist? Might we want to understand ways to head that off?” asks political scientist Seth Masket, deciphering an abstract which contained the words “neopsyhological” and “manualised”. Masket noted that political scientists have done a poor job explaining their discipline to public officials, the media, or society in general. 

He is right. But academics struggling to stay employed are reluctant to relinquish the unwieldy jargon that is the source of so much mockery and misery. Shunning disciplinary norms could cost them in publishing or finding a job. Furthermore, writing in a style decipherable to the public opens one up to public scrutiny. “Bad writing,” argues political scientist Stephen Walt, is “a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.”

But bad writing also shields the author from interest and support – a serious problem when the denial of funding rests on assertions of irrelevance. That is assuming, of course, that the author’s works are accessible at all.

With the majority of academic literature hidden behind a paywall, there is no way for the public to determine whether claims of irrelevance are valid. Instead, they rely on slanted media coverage – “Feds pay $227,000 to study magazine photographs,” crowed the Washington Times – and politicians’ charges of elitism, which paywalls help validate. The paywall sends a signal to the public that their interest in scholarship is unwelcome, even though their money may have helped pay for it.

Exploiting stereotypes of academics

The week the Coburn amendment passed, I spoke at a workshop on Central Asian security issues in Washington, DC. The presenters were researchers; the audience largely policy officials. One of the goals of the workshop was to determine what risks Central Asia faces after NATO withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014.

This is a question of national security – a pragmatic question, the sort of which Senator Coburn approves. But what we found during the discussion is how heavily our knowledge of Central Asian relies on the in-depth, long-term studies of objective scholars. Academic analysis of Central Asia has shed light on Islamic practice, ethnic conflict and state repression – issues of complexity important to shaping policy, but best studied by trained social scientists without a political agenda. The work of academic researchers was often funded through government programmes – and now that the government has cut funding, knowledge of the region will decrease.

There is no doubt that defunding disciplines like political science means we will lose research of value. There is also no doubt the government will seize any opportunity it can to axe programmes it deems of little significance. What is in doubt is the willingness of academics to forestall budgetary cuts by allowing the public to see the value of their work.

When scholars and society are considered separate, it is politicians like Tom Coburn who benefit. Politicians are able to exploit stereotypes of academics because academia blocks access to its best line of defence: its research.

There is no excuse, in the digital age, for continuing to suppress ideas and insight behind jargon and paywalls. We cannot debate what is in the public interest if the public has no way to discover what interests them.

Sarah Kendzior is a writer and analyst who studies digital media and politics. She has a PhD in anthropology from Washington University.