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.