The Slow Burn of Coburn or, “Get The Hell Off My Lawn!”

So, dispensing with technicalities, the efforts to curtail NSF funding of political science research have apparently succeeded, at least for now.

I think this is a good opportunity to post something that has bothered me over the past few years.  In a nutshell, I am unsure that the “Coburn amendment” is a bad thing for political science.  I will set aside considerations of the direct and indirect benefits of NSF funding, as well as potential crowding out effects such funding might induce in private and corporate donors.  Rather, I want to focus on the virtues of being left alone.

I post here semi-regularly about the substance of my research.  I apply mathematical social scientific models to politics, particularly to political institutions.  I teach courses to undergraduate and graduate students, and I spend a lot of time conducting original research and evaluating the research of colleagues around the world.  I love my job, and I honestly believe that it matters.  This blog is a small instance of why I believe this: I get things wrong, perhaps most of the time, but what I do allows/forces me to think about why and how things work the way they do.  While one can and definitely should think about things in different ways, the attacks on political science are simply nihilistic.

I have made the argument at various points and maybe it’s wrongheaded, but the question of whether an act/profession/interest is relevant or useful in and of itself is typically either ill-posed or easily answered with “no.”  Political science, like every other academic discipline, involves rigorous application of technique to create, assemble, and understand a body of knowledge.  I sleep (very) well at night knowing that what we do as a discipline informs, alters, and shapes the way I think about a broad range of incredibly “relevant” political events and broader phenomena.  Perhaps most importantly, what we do not only allows me to understand these things—it enables me to both be and recognize when I am wrong in simultaneously informative and informing ways.

So, while the jury’s still out about both the long-term prospects and effects of the Coburn amendment, I can definitely say this: I look forward to not talking about it anymore.  I’m tired of being confronted by the loaded question (“Have You Stopped Defending Your Junk Science and Charlatanism Yet?”), especially because my responses are sometimes witty and always unprintable.

But more positively, I am a consequentialist and take a glass half-full approach by recognizing that the die is cast for now and, as a field, we have more fundamental and important work to get back to.  So, ironically, thank you Tom Coburn: may your amendment most ironically refocus us on our science.

Oh, and I leave you with this.


* It’s public record, but in the interest of full disclosure, I have some skin in the game.