Why Are Republicans Picking on Political Science

July 07, 2012, 1:34 AM GMT+0

Political Science has been in the news a fair bit of late, although not necessarily for the best of reasons. In referring to research supporting the notion of global warming, for example, former Senator Rick Santorum pejoratively labeled it as “Political Science.” In the House, the Flake amendment, which would remove all National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for Political Science, passed 218 to 208. Where’s the love? And why is Political Science being singled out for the heat? More generally, what does the American public think about the National Science Foundation’s funding of academic research at American universities?

We asked a nationally-representative YouGov sample of 1000 panel participants to indicate their support for NSF funding in one of three programs: Computer Science, Political Science, and Psychology. Each respondent rated only one program, asked at random, yielding approximately one third of the sample evaluating each program. We coded “strongly support” responses as 1, “somewhat support” responses at .75, “neither support nor oppose” responses and “don’t knows” as .5, “somewhat oppose” responses as .25, and “strongly oppose” as 0. Weighted averages of these scales by program, both overall and by respondent partisanship, appear in the table below. These results suggest that if one is going to make political hay by picking on the NSF, political science appears to be a relatively reasonable target. Overall, Computer Science and Psychology fare much better than Political Science, with the public rating those programs nearly 20% higher than Political Science. The relative dearth of support for Political Science is apparent not just for Republicans, but also for Independents. That Political Science fares worse than Computer Science is not surprising. But Political Science’s lack of support relative to another quantitative social science--Psychology--is perhaps more surprising, and is most acute among Independents. What is it about Political Science that makes it vulnerable?

 Support for NSF Funding in Different Disciplinary Areas
  Overall      Democrats     Independents     Republicans    
Computer Science    0.63 0.68 0.68 0.57
Psychology     0.61 0.72  0.67 0.48
Political Science    0.53 0.63  0.50 0.44
Note: Cell entries are mean scale scores (weighted), where 1=Strongly support, .75=Somewhat support, .5=Neither support nor oppose, .25=Somewhat oppoes, 0=Strongly oppose

Our second question, fielded to all 1000 respondents, asked individuals to evaluate different justifications for NSF funding of academic research. Using the same scale scoring, we present those results in the next table (below). Across all groups, respondents are most supportive of research to develop new technologies, products, and therapies, areas where both Psychology and Computer Science likely have advantages over Political Science. Improving understanding of human behavior--one of the key contributions of Political Science--does poorly with Republicans and is the least supportive justification among Independents. In the abstract, however, Independents are more supportive of understanding human behavior than they are of Political Science funding in particular, suggesting political scientists would do well to highlight their contributions in that area. Likewise, training students and supporting faculty and student research are reasonably popular among Independents. Perhaps the more general point is that it is hard to know what the mass public thinks Political Science funding supports, nor what elements of that work it finds objectionable. These results suggest, however, that the public, even Republicans, are more supportive of NSF funding of academic research than opposed, especially when evaluating the abstract goals that the NSF pursues. More effort highlighting these contributions, perhaps related to new technologies and the training of students, might be a fruitful way to foster support for continuing NSF funding for academic research in the social and behavioral sciences.

 Support for Different Purposes of NSF Funding
  Overall      Democrats     Independents     Republicans    
To develop new technologies, products, and therapies 0.70 0.82 0.74 0.60
To improve basic understanding in the natural sciences 0.68 0.77 0.73 0.56
To train students  0.67 0.76 0.71 0.55
To improve basic understanding of human behavior 0.64 0.77 0.66 0.52
To support faculty and student research 0.63 0.73 0.67 0.52
Note: Cell entries are mean scale scores (weighted), where 1=Strongly support, .75=Somewhat support, .5=Neither support nor oppose, .25=Somewhat oppoes, 0=Strongly oppose