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What Has the NSF Wrought?

- May 15, 2012

This is a guest post by Rick Wilson, Herbert S. Autrey Chair of Political Science at Rice University and current editor of the American Journal of Political Science.

Years ago I was a Political Science program officer at NSF and I can attest to Chris Zorn’s comments about the review process posted in this blog.  NSF’s peer review process is thorough and complete.  Since that time I have served on numerous NSF panels and I continue to be impressed by the time and energy devoted to ensuring that the best in basic research is funded.  My usual lament for NSF was that there was too much great research being proposed and not enough money to fund it all.

These days I get to see the results of work funded by NSF.  While I completely agree that political scientists (like many scientists) do not communicate their research to the public very well, they do communicate their results to the discipline.  This is an important step for generating knowledge.  Basic research needs scientific scrutiny and scientific journals serve this role.  I try to get excellent research out to the community in a timely fashion.  That work is read and commented on by many in the scientific community.  That work serves to stimulate other research (not funded by NSF) to verify the findings. Sometimes (and not as often as I would like) the research that I publish is translated to the broader community.

Here’s a sampler of NSF funded research appearing in the AJPS over the past several years.  The Midwest Political Science Association and Wiley Publishers have made these articles open to the community, so you can read them at your leisure. This research is addressing fundamental questions debated by politicians and policy makers alike.  It is not irrelevant research that only matters for the narrow few.  Instead the research has very broad implications.

A sampler:

  • Ramiro Berardo and John Scholz.  July 2010.  “Self-Organizing Policy Networks:  Risk, Partner Selection, and Cooperation in Estuaries.”  This project was funded by NSF and extends basic science research using mathematical tools common to social networks.  This study looks explicitly at networks involving policy makers dealing with coastal estuaries.  Policy makers face the problem of the “Tragedy of the Commons” and this work relies on insights from the Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom.  They find that in riskier settings (where the resource is the most fragile) highly connected networks spring up and these are important for preventing further resource decline.
  • Peter Hatemi et al.  July 2010.  “Not by Twins Alone:  Using the Extended Family Design to Investigate Genetic Influence on Political Beliefs.” A project funded in part by NSF.  This is one of an increasing number of studies providing evidence for a strong genetic component to political attitudes.  The point to the research is not that politics is purely genetic – but that individuals are born with personality traits that carry with them through their life.  These are related to political attitudes.
  • Nathan J. Kelly and Peter K. Ennis.  Oct. 2010.  “Inequality and the Dynamics of Public Opinion:  The Self-Reinforcing Link Between Economic Inequality and Mass Preferences.”  This research, funded by NSF, looks at the threat that rising income inequality has for democracy.  The findings call into question the idea that changes in inequality result in a shift in mass opinion toward more liberal ideas.  Indeed the research indicates that increases in inequality shifts mass public opinion in a more conservative direction.
  • Douglas M. Gibler and Jaroslav Tir.  Oct. 2010.  “Settled Borders and Regime Type:  Democratic Transitions as Consequences of Peaceful Territorial Transfers.” Research funded by NSF.  This article goes directly to the heart of territorial boundary issues.  Using data from a long period, the findings indicate that peaceful territorial transfers (getting states to solve their border disputes) have two long-term effects.  First, it radically decreases the likelihood of war between states.  Second, it allows those states to more quickly adopt democratic institutions.  The implication is that proactive actions in solving territorial disputes (often by third parties) pays off in important ways.
  • Richard Nielsen et al.  April 2011.  “Foreign Aid Shocks as a Cause of Violent Armed Conflict.”  This research, funded by the NSF, carefully examines foreign aid to countries over a 25 year period.  Taking into account a variety of other possible explanations, it shows that a sudden decrease in foreign aid results in an increase in violent conflict within countries.  Withdrawing foreign aid destabilizes governments, making them appear weaker to insurgents within countries.  The effect is very pronounced and persists.
  • Katerina Linos.  July 2011.  “Diffusion through Democracy.”  This research, funded by the NSF, asks whether international norms affect politicians in other countries.  The author provides useful evidence to demonstrate that while politicians are bound to their own domestic constituencies, international organizations can temper those constituencies.  The diffusion of democratic ideas appears to have a broad reach.
  • John Barry Ryan.  October 2011.  “Social Networks as a Shortcut to Correct Voting.”  Funded by the National Science Foundation, this research points to the importance of local communities for providing information to largely uninformed voters.  Much of political communication focuses on politicians targeting individual voters and pundits have long been worried that those messages fall flat.  For many people, particularly independents, politics is not at the forefront of their daily lives.  This research demonstrates that neighbors can provide important shortcuts for uninformed voters and those voters cast a vote consistent with what they would have done if they were fully informed.
  • Yanna Krupnikov.  October 2011.  “When Does Negativity Demobilize?  Tracing the Conditional Effect of Negative Campaigning on Voter Turnout.” This research uses the American National Election Studies data funded by the NSF to address the question of negative campaigning on turnout.  While negative campaigning is common in American Politics, it is not clear whether is has a detrimental effect on who decides to turnout to vote.  This research demonstrates that the biggest effect will be with voters who have decided on a candidate and then are exposed to negative information about their choice.  This stands in contrast to the usual view that those who are undecided will be turned off by negative campaigns.
  • Luke N. Condra and Jacob N. Shapiro.  January 2012.  “Who Takes the Blame?  The Strategic Effects of Collateral Damage.”  Funded by the NSF, this research points to the military consequences for civilian casualties.  The research focuses on Iraq from 2004 through 2009 and looks at civilian collateral damage due to either Coalition forces or Insurgents.  The findings demonstrate that both sides suffer adverse civilian reactions when viewed as being responsible for collateral damage.  These findings stress the importance for Coalition forces to avoid civilian casualties through collateral damage.

Obviously this listing is by no means complete.  But my point is that the research being conducted by my colleagues and funded by the NSF is first rate, pushes the boundaries of science and is relevant to contemporary society.  That work touches on the underpinnings to democratic institutions, how varied citizen interests get translated into public policy, how peace can be encouraged and how economic shocks affect long-term voting patterns.  All are questions of contemporary relevance.  The answers to these questions are not based on opinions nor are they susceptible to 15-second sound bites.  The work is complicated and uses jargon.  However, that should not diminish its importance.

It is a shame to see any body of research be singled out for dismantling.  I can certainly understand the impulse to think that political scientists are little more than glorified talking heads who comment on today’s politics.  Consequently, why shower taxpayer money on them?  But this misrepresents what political scientists do.  As noted above, we are concerned with providing scientific evidence with which to answer fundamental social and political problems.  To cut the political science program at NSF is a shortsighted strategy.  It eliminates a critical source of independent funding for basic research to answer fundamental questions.  In the long run this will hamper decision makers who will face even more complicated choices in a complex world.

In the end, although few of us understand modern Physics (and even fewer read Physics journals) would it make sense to cut that program at NSF?  Basic science findings in Physics may or may not payoff in the long run. In a similar fashion basic science findings in Political Science are investments in knowledge.  The payoffs are to current and future generations of policymakers.  Political Scientists can do a much better job of translating their findings to the public.  But at the same time the basic science needs to be done.  It makes no sense to cut Political Science from NSF.