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My NSF Grant

- May 10, 2012

Now that the House has voted to defund the political science program of the National Science Foundation, I wanted to say something about my own grant, which I officially received last month and which totals $76,160, or about 0.00002% of the FY 2012 federal budget.  Although I do not know whether those who voted to defund this program have a specific beef with political science or, like Congressman Flake, simply want to cut government spending on scientific research.  But back when Senator Tom Coburn wanted to defund political science, he raised specific objections to funding the academic study of politics as well as the social sciences generally:

bq. Rather than ramping up the amount spent on political science and other social and behavioral research, NSF’s mission should be redirected towards truly transformative sciences with practical uses outside of academic circles and clear benefits to mankind and the world.

In my initial responses to that argument — some cheeky, some serious — I tried to make the case that political science research has “clear benefits.”  This may be, for example, why the Department of Defense has funded social science research in an effort to promote national security.  (See Jacob Shapiro and Jay Ulfelder on this.)  This may also be why Senator Coburn eventually found it useful to cite NSF-funded political science research in his defense of the Government Accountability Office.

Does the research that my grant will fund have such benefits?  I believe it does.  The subject of my grant, most of which will fund a small survey, is how people’s attitudes toward social groups come to be associated with their attitudes toward public policies.  Why should we care about this?  People’s attitudes toward social groups are frequently characterized by stereotypes and other misperceptions — Southerners are dumb, blacks are lazy, etc.  And sometimes their attitudes toward public policies reflect their stereotypes of the groups who might benefit from those policies.  Put simply, some people favor or oppose policies at least partly because they like or dislike the groups who might benefit.

This, I think, is a potentially problematic basis for public opinion.  We would like opinions about public policy to center on considerations of the objective benefits and costs of policies, or on broader values about the role of government in economic, political, and social life.  But when opinions about public policy are based at least in part on stereotypes of social groups, then it is difficult to characterize those opinions as well-informed or even accurate.  Ideally, people would not oppose immigration because they think Latinos are lazy.  Ideally, they would not support taxes on the wealthy because they think all rich people are greedy.

The purpose of my project is to figure out what makes these kinds of stereotypes more potent predictors of attitudes.  Is it just inherent in the nature of certain issues?  Or does political debate need to implicate a particular group directly?  And does it matter who the publicly visible sponsor of the policy is?  If we can answer these questions, we will know something about how to make stereotypes less potent forces in debates over public policy.

Of course, I don’t pretend that my project is going to be “transformative,” to use Coburn’s term above.  Almost no research meets that standard.  Science proceeds in smaller steps.  So although I wouldn’t expect Senator Coburn or Congressman Flake or even every reader of this blog to agree with me, I do think my project has enough value to deserve NSF funding.

We will be highlighting other NSF-funded political science research over the next several days.