Home > News > What NSF-Funded Projects Have Taught Us About National Security Issues
180 views 9 min 0 Comment

What NSF-Funded Projects Have Taught Us About National Security Issues

- May 11, 2012

by Erica Chenoweth (@EricaChenoweth) and Jason Lyall (@jaylyall_red5.)

Yesterday’s House of Representatives vote to defund political science research has yet again put many political scientists on the defensive. Arguing that the federal government is spending way too much money on political science research, the amendment’s sponsor, Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ), remarked,

These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them. How can we justify this outcome?

We’d like to point out some of the past and current research findings that NSF supported—some of which established what policymakers and scholars now view as conventional wisdom—that may justify such spending.

  • Violent insurgencies—including ethnically-motivated ones—tend to set on not because of religious or ethnic differences, but rather because a state’s weakness permits them to. Thus the outbreak of civil wars is driven by low state capacity and the inability to deliver public goods to the population. This finding, although not without its critics, has informed a great deal of policy practice with regard to capacity-building in weak and failed states (for more on James Fearon and David Laitin’s project, click here).
  • Terrorists are generally rational actors whose behavior often responds in predictable ways to different policies. For instance, after a spate of airline hijackings, most airports installed metal detectors, which drastically reduced the number of airline hijackings. However, many terrorists simply switched to kidnappings—an example of the so-called “substitution effect”—which is a cautionary principle that informs a great deal of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism policy today (see some more work by Walter Enders and Todd Sandler).
  • Citizens in democratic countries remain supportive of democratic values in the face of terrorism when policymakers issue reminders about core democratic values, which help to keep citizens from losing confidence in democratic practices. However, citizens of illiberal democracies—i.e. many of our allies—are much more vulnerable to support non-democratic practices in the face of terrorism (see Jennifer Merolla and Elizabeth Zechmeister’s book). This research helps us to better understand how societies may remain resilient and avoid overreaction to terrorist threats.

Additional projects investigate questions such as:

This is but a small sampling.

NSF-funded research has also provided extraordinary public goods to those of us who study political violence and terrorism through the creation of data sets on civil war, repression, and terrorism. Researchers turn to these data sets routinely to better understand the causes and responses to political violence. In fact, without some of these data sets, it would be difficult to imagine where the field of international relations would be today. To name just a few:

Such datasets are clearly good investments. Once released, other researchers use them to investigate important questions related to the causes and responses to political violence. The data sets above (and many others funded by NSF) have returned countless articles on a variety of issues directly related to international security–and at very low cost relative to what private security consulting firms would charge for the same product).

In addition, NSF grants, often quite small in nature, have supported fieldwork in strategically vital regions and countries. Indeed, a short list of projects funded this year in these areas would include:

  • Driscoll’s study of Al Shabaab’s provision of security and governance in Mogadishu, Somalia
  • Lust’s investigation of Egyptian, Moroccan, and Tunisian elections during the “Arab Spring” and their respective transitions to democracy
  • Beissinger’s study of energy and water cooperation between five Central Asian states
  • Ermakoff’s study of the formation of armed self-defense groups in rural Sudan

These grants do not only facilitate the collection of new knowledge about important places, however. Since these issues and areas are often difficult to access, especially for outside researchers, they require the creative use of new methods and approaches–including GPS sampling of populations, new survey methods, and the use of satellite imagery–to provide rigorous answers to timely and often-sensitive questions.

Put differently, these small grants act as proofs of concept for the wider community of scholars who will embrace and then extend successful applications. In fact, a strong case could be made for increasing rather than reducing NSF funding given the clear multiplier effects of these small seed grants. To be sure, some of these experimental approaches may fail, but the natural outcome of this trial-and-error process should not be held out as an indictment of the NSF. Instead, it should be viewed as evidence of the NSF’s critical role as an incubator of promising new approaches and innovations.

Finally, NSF funds have had enormous impact on the production of top-quality doctoral dissertations that may never have been completed without support for fieldwork or data collection. In fact, most recent security and defense-related NSF grants have gone to graduate students (or even undergraduates; see here and here) who wish to develop new insights necessary to reduce political violence. Some of the insights that have emerged from these dissertations include:

  • David Cunningham’s finding that the more distinct armed groups there are in a civil war, the longer the civil war will endure.
  • Dara Cohen’s finding that insurgent groups that abduct recruits and rely on contraband funding are more likely to employ sexual violence against civilians, and that such groups use rape to create social cohesion.
  • Aila Matanock’s finding that negotiated settlements that allow combatants to participate in elections result in a more lasting peace.

These projects and many others yield findings that have clear implications for U.S. foreign and defense policy, which Flake cites as defensible expenditures, and they also have clear educational value for those scholars whose work will inform such policies in the future. We doubt that our colleagues have pursued these projects solely to satisfy their curiosities. Instead, they’ve pursued these projects–and received NSF’s highly competitive grants–because their topics are of vital concern to the country and the world, and they think their research can improve responses to extremely difficult (and as-yet unresolved) policy problems.