Coburn vs. Levy on Funding Political Science

In the American, Philip Levy of the American Enterprise Institute defends federal funding of political science research against charges that it represents wasteful spending from Sen. Tom Coburn.

As a long time student of political science, a some-times member of the political science associations, a reader of the political science journals let me say, Coburn is right.

A large portion of political science research is esoteric, contributes little to public knowledge, is research for the sake of research (and having research, however trite, is of great value to political scientists) and is of little value. Levy acknowledges this problem, but contends that “we would get experts to review studies carefully and determine whether they warrant public funds (which is what the NSF does).”

But suggesting expert political scientists will divvy up political science funding is not quite satisfying to a taxpayer watchdog – it’s like saying the expert foxes will decide which foxes get the hens, therefore, the hens should like the decision. Furthermore, as the New York Times points out, even “expert” political scientists disagree about what is valuable in the field.

Levy also concedes another point – that Coburn is not being “anti-intellectual” and devaluing science, or even the contributions of political science, but merely suggesting political science does not merit taxpayer funding and should be left to the private sector. Levy contends however – ignoring concerns of having government direct research of government, or the aforementioned disagreement over how government should prioritize political science research – that government must fund political science. Levy reasoning is that, unlike medicine or physics, there is no profit in political science – therefore the private sector won’t fund it.

The obvious flaw in Levy’s reasoning is that the private sector does fund political science. Universities are among the largest recipients of charitable gifts – probably second only to churches – and a significant portion of that support is directed (by the university or the donor) to poli sci.

The ultimate irony is this – Levy’s employer, AEI, itself conducts a great deal of research that is properly considered political science. AEI, of course, is privately funded.