mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn bayles
Advice For American Universities: Winter is Coming

Hell hath no fury like the anger of a tenured professor whose discipline is under attack.

In a move that has sent the nation’s academic establishment into an uproar, the House of Representatives recently passed an amendment that prevents the National Science Foundation from funding political science research.

As expected, the forces of American political science have mustered in all their glory and might.  Eleven political science department chairs, headed by Princeton’s Nolan McCarty, issued an open letter blasting the amendment and asserting that:

The work it has supported has made major contributions to our understanding of America’s democracy and its place in the world. The research has promoted understanding on vital issues important to Congress, including national security, economic prosperity, and the health of American civic life.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the bill’s sponsor, soon responded to their criticism:

The nation is closing in on a $16 trillion debt; deficit, more than $1.3 trillion. Nearly 40 cents of every dollar we spend is borrowed. Congress can either continue funding unnecessary programs like someone is printing cash in the basement, or we can face facts that there simply isn’t enough money to go around.


Now, I hold a graduate degree in political science myself. I agree that such research has its benefits. The work of political scientists advances the knowledge and understanding of citizenship and government, politics, and this shouldn’t be minimized. But they shouldn’t be subsidized by the National Science Foundation.

Some even believe that Flake’s proposal doesn’t go far enough, and that the government should cease public funding for all social science research.

Whatever you think of the idea, Flake scores an important point: while there is much useful and meritorious work coming out of the academy, there is a lot of academic claptrap within American higher education as well. Political scientists can well wonder why they, especially, are being singled out when so many other and at least equally vapid departments aren’t on the chopping block.

It’s easy for faculties to sneer at Flake and mock the philistine barbarians outside the walls who can’t appreciate the subtle beauties and richly textured accomplishments of modern academic thought. But Flake’s strongest argument has nothing to do with the merits of political science. That argument is the budgetary one: there isn’t any money.

The ability to run up large deficits has insulated federal programs from the cutbacks at the state and local level, but that ability isn’t what it was. Entitlements and interest payments on the national debt are on course to crowd out virtually all discretionary federal spending.

We’ve already seen what politicians do when the squeeze hits at the state and local level: college and university funding gets cut to the bone. In state after state, public universities have raised tuition and frantically explored other revenue sources. Federal grants have helped, but those funds, too, will now start to run short.

For now at least, the Senate and the conference committee seem likely to keep political scientists eligible for federal support — but over time that support looks likely to diminish, and Flake’s core argument that scarce dollars be concentrated on the natural sciences rather than the social sciences or the humanities will start making more sense to more people.

The American academy had a glorious spring after World War Two, and a long and luxurious summer ever since. But summers don’t last forever. Sooner or later, winter comes.



Features Icon
show comments
  • Anthony

    Winter is already here; there isn’t any money…

  • Pedro Marquez

    I’m guessing Game of Thrones writers are not to be included among “addled” Hollywood types?

    In all seriousness though, great post.

  • Rand Millar

    Observing Prof. Nolan McCarty & Cie reprove Congressman Flake recalls Marie Antoinette and her courtiers indignant opposition to Jacques Necker as he sought to bring a measure of sanity to French royal finances in the 1780s.

  • Jim.


    One of these days Mead’s going to make a reference to Song of Fire and Ice that will make a scathing review of that ghastly and nihilistic (yet well-wordsmithed) series and its Evil Norman Rockwell of an author appropriate; however, to quote Jackson’s credible addition to Tolkien’s legendarium, “Today is not that day”.

    That said– what America needs worse than anything right now is a “back to basics” cultual movement, where we figure out what is critical and must be paid for to allow necessary services to function, and what is not.

  • Tom


    I’m not sure if I’d call A Song of Ice and Fire “ghastly and nihilistic” just yet.

    That being said, why on earth was political science research being funded by the National Science Foundation? Political science, at its most mathematically based, is not science in the old sense of the term.

  • Corlyss

    “House of Representatives”

    This is the marginally sane house. It’ll never get thru Dementia Central, aka the Senate. Hardly worth mentioning unless you’re really into teeny weeny signs of revolution peeking out decades in advance.

  • Corlyss

    “Some even believe that Flake’s proposal doesn’t go far enough, and that the government should cease public funding for all social science research.”

    Public funding of anything but hard science research should cease. Now that I think about it, public funding of post high school education should cease too. It’s done little but bloat costs and corrupt the entire collegiate purpose with faux “research” crap. What’s happened to Engish and history as disciplines is little short of criminal.

  • GC

    “Entitlements and interest payments on the national debt are on course to crowd out virtually all discretionary federal spending.”

    Interest payments on the national debt will reach 30% of federal revenues when interest rates return to normal levels. By 2021, interest payments will be the largest single category of federal spending.

    Per The National Debt: A Primer and A Plan
    (Booklocker, 2011).

  • thibaud

    “Political Science” is BS. There’s the study of _government_, or diplomatic history and interstate relations, or political economy or even plain old politics: all valid areas of inquiry that benefit from application of rigorous intellectual frameworks and evaluations of data.

    But none of these is _scientific_ in the way that the empirical sciences are: no opportunity to do controlled experiments, for instance.

    I don’t care much for Tea Party slash-and-burn policies, but the Flake from Arizona’s correct: the National Science Foundation should not be funding studies of politics and other non-scientific areas of inquiry.

  • teapartydoc

    Popper: The Poverty of Historicism. Read this and you wonder why social sciences are even in any curriculum.

  • Political Science involves stiydung the judicial system, and the government of both your own country and of foreign nations as well. I majored in Poli Sci and History and loved it. It was a great jumping off point for me to get into grad school and then to law school. If you are interested in how the world works (economically, politically, socially, etc) than I would recomend this major. You can even gear it towards your particular interest such Women’s roles in the world, the legal system, the political system, international governments, international relations/diplomacy and many other fields. There are also lots of different jobs that a political science degree will offer you. You could work at a state or federal capital, the FBI, CIA, you could become an analyst, go to law school, and many other things. I would call up the school you are planning on attending and ask them about their political science program because it differs fromplace to place. But honestly, majoring in Poli Sci was the best decision I ever made. I have learned so mcuh and have begun working in a field that I love. I wish you the best in college!

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service