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NSF Funding as a Catalyst

- May 11, 2012

This is a guest post by Martin Edwards of Seton Hall University.   The focus of his research is the International Monetary Fund.  Although it is complicated to calculate how much the taxpayer money goes to fund the IMF, certainly that number is certainly in the billions (see this CRS report).  At a minimum, this gives us some stake in understanding how the IMF works.


Congressman Flake pointed out that three-fourths of the NSF awards in political science go to institutions with endowments of greater than $1 billion. I don’t teach at such an institution and my award (NSF 0960422) does not fall into this category. What I do below is talk about the broader impacts of this project on my campus.

What is this project about?
The purpose of this project is to better understand International Monetary Fund surveillance. We have learned much in recent years about how the IMF lends, how political factors affect the ability of countries to implement austerity measures, and how we assess the effects of IMF programs given that countries need them when they’re in economic crisis. The problem is that this is only part of the IMF’s mission. Countries not in economic crisis still interact with the Fund through its surveillance activities. Countries meet with IMF missions about every year, and the Fund not only monitors the economic policies of its members, but offers policy advice as well.

One reason why there has been little attention to surveillance is that it has been largely a private affair. It is only since 1997 that countries have begun releasing information about IMF surveillance. Since that time, there has been a deepening norm of transparency, as more countries have released more information about their respective consultations.

Why is this important?
We care about surveillance not merely because it’s understudied, but because understanding it helps us answer larger questions. It helps us to understand how international organizations work. The Fund does not penalize countries for failing to implement the findings of a surveillance mission. But, if surveillance is inconsequential, then why do countries debate whether or not to release the findings of these missions? The project also helps us understand how the IMF works. Surveillance has become more important in the wake of the global financial crisis, and a better understanding of its effects helps us to understand how transparency can be a double-edged sword for the Fund.

How is this project different from other awards?
My award was given under the RUI (Research at Undergraduate Institutions) designation. Simply put, RUI exists because some institutions lack an undergraduate research infrastructure. This project has allowed me to create one. It’s allowed me to hire three cohorts of exceptionally talented Seton Hall undergraduates and work with them over three consecutive summers. It’s allowed me to take two groups of students to Chicago so that they could present our findings on panels at the Midwest Political Science Association meeting.

Focusing on surveillance has invigorated my teaching. At the graduate level, students in my class on international organizations have just concluded a project on surveillance conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  None of this would have happened without the support of the NSF.

For scholars that do not teach at schools with deep endowments, the effects of NSF funding are catalytic. In future years, I’ll be able to find private foundation support for expanding this undergraduate research program. Without the NSF funding, not only would I be not positioned to do this, but I also would have missed out on some of the greatest pedagogical experiences of my career.