Politics, political science, and the production of knowledge

My last post discussed the costs associated with judicial supervision of the academic system, where I argued that such intervention undermines the purpose of a university. Today, however, I learned of a different kind of intervention. In a recent proposal, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), suggested that the National Science Foundation, the federal agency in charge of funding scientific projects, stop “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects“.

CoburnThis is no small potatoes. The NSF, with a budge of over $6 billion, funds about 20 percent of all federally supported research at American colleges and universities. Though political science research would presumably continue, it would no doubt take a hit if Coburn’s proposal is approved. A $9 million hit, to be exact.

Presumably, the proposal is motivated by the idea that political science departments don’t conduct valuable research (it’s hard to discern what Coburn’s idea of value is, however), and that the money could be spent more efficiently elsewhere. Indeed, Coburn said that network television and cable news stations provide a myriad of answers to the questions political scientists are engaged with.

There are at least two problems with Coburn’s proposal. First, is the idea that a politician, who is probably not very well versed in the academic literature, seems to think, based on scant evidence, if any, that an entire scientific field is worthless. I’m saying this is a problem because the NSF, which is a federal agency comprised of experts and which also employs scientists to determine how the funds will be disbursed, does not seem to think the field is worthless. The NSF actually does maintain regular contact with the academic and research community to assess the situation.  It is unclear, then, what the criteria for Coburn’s proposal are, and he would do well to articulate them.

More importantly, and on a more philosophical level, Coburn’s argument demonstrates a misunderstanding regarding the production of knowledge. This misunderstanding is so severe and so widely shared, I think, that a fuller elaboration is necessary.

Knowledge is produced today mainly in two settings, market and non-market. In the market setting, knowledge is produced for commercial purposes and basically follows the supply and demand curves. If the public demands a product or service, or if developers sense a need for such product or service, then efforts to produce that product will take place and knowledge will be accrued in the service of that and future products. The knowledge produced in the market setting, therefore, is dependent on market needs. If the market doesn’t need a product right now, then it will most likely not be developed, and the knowledge won’t be gained.

Knowledge can also be produced in non-market settings, such as universities, government laboratories, think tanks, and the like. Because the knowledge is developed outside the market, it doesn’t have to meet its demands.

Already we can see the difference. In the market setting, knowledge is produced instrumentally, to bring about a product. On this view, knowledge is the means to produce an end. But knowledge can also be considered as a product by itself, which is what the non-market (academic) setting is mostly concerned with. If we think of knowledge as having these two meanings, then we can point to a market failure in the production of knowledge. The knowledge that we get from the political pundits Coburn referred to is knowledge produced to achieve something else, for example high ratings. The market is therefore ill-equipped to produce the knowledge as product that universities, and political science departments, produce.

Coburn is being terribly short sighted here. It could indeed be that some political science scholarship does not reap immediate rewards. However, the nature of the production of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and its interaction with market based knowledge production, is that it produces more knowledge. How we come to know something invariably depends on all the trials and errors and progress that preceded it. Cutting funding is to be oblivious to that . It harms the production of knowledge.

2 Responses

  1. I am guessing that Senator Coburn’s comments reflect not only the market/non-market distinction in knowledge production, but possibly a science/non-science distinction in the type of knowledge produced, as well. The idea is that political science, (and presumably other types of social sciences), are not true “sciences” worthy of being funded by the National Science Foundation, not merely because it is not immediately useful, but because it does not produce real “knowledge” at all.

    The market/non-market distinction is fairly hard to defend. If political science gives us insight into voter behavior, the functions and interactions of various branches of government, international relations, and war, it is hard to imagine what could be more immediately useful for designing and improving our government.

    The second distinction may be more worrisome, however. Not being a political scientist, I have little idea about how “scientific” the type of research done in this field is. But if the mandate of the NSF is to fund “science” (and not, say, philosophy or theory) then the accusation that political science is not really a science would fairly conclusively close the case.

  2. The NSF’s mandate is actually to fund the social sciences as well, in addition to the “hard” sciences. I would have thought the argument whether the social sciences constitute science would have been settled by now, with the conclusion that social sciences, such as psychology, economics, sociology, constitute science, even if they use somewhat diferent methods, for example statistics. I suppose philosophers of science can still argue about that, but I’m not sure that’s very productive. At any rate, if we’re talking about the production of knowledge, that is not equivalent to the scientific methods.
    Political science research can have immediate rewards, like you pointed out, but not all political science scholarship is focused on these issues. First of all, there is the political theory type research which tends to be more abstract and less institutionally design based. Second, there’s a fair amount of historical research which is not immediately relevant. Third, the new positive political theory type stuff, for which we will need more time to evaluate its contribution.

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