Political Science 101: How to Get Your Research Grant Back

Of all the sciences to be subject to congressional restrictions on what research can and can’t be funded by the National Science Foundation, congress, with its
recent decision to defund political science research at the NSF, may have chosen the worst possible science to pick on. It turns out we’ve dedicated significant research attention over the course of decades (and millions of NSF dollars) to understand how congress works, and how to lobby congress. The discipline was blindsided by Sen. Coburn’s amendment (SA65) in the Continuing Resolution and was offered up by Democrats in return for passage of a must pass funding bill. Way to take one for the team Poli Sci—there will be no government shut down this year and it’s all due to our sacrifice!

But now the question is what could or should political science do to restore NSF funding, or lift the current restrictions on NSF funding for political science? It turns out we know a lot about how to approach this.

Research shows that given limited resources, we should lobbyour allies, to get the provision in the vehicles that will move, and if more resources are available we should lobby those who may be undecided or against our favored position. The Democratic allies in the past on this issue include Sen. Mikulski, Sen. Durbin, Sen. Warren. It would be worthwhile to catalogue other lawmakers who have supported political science funding in the past and to make this information public. As other lawmakers show their support, they should be publically thanked, and a website should be maintained to transparently show which lawmakers are on our side.

We need to know the strategic legislative context of the bill and issue we seek to affect. In an article I published
in Allan Cigler and Burdett Loomis’s 8th edition of Interest Group Politics
, I show how we can use the spatial model of legislative politics to discern groups’ optimal lobbying strategies. The relevant characteristics are: whether the bill is in gridlock, and whether the interest group supports the bill.  Since we’re talking about a hypothetical bill, let’s assume that we’re talking about a standalone bill (that would likely get added to a larger funding bill, such as an appropriations bill or omnibus spending bill) to reinstate NSF political science funding to its former, unrestricted, status. Evidence suggests that such a bill would pass. Thomas Mann, a political scientist and Brookings Institution scholar pointed out that a roll call on this issue would have strong support, likely in both chambers. Therefore, we can assume that there is no gridlock over this issue. Restricted NSF funding is the hobby horse of people like Sen. Coburn and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), but given the opportunity to vote, most legislators would support it. We can therefore assume that our hypothetical bill is NOT in the gridlock region, and we know the interest group (political scientists, perhaps in the organized form of the American Political Science Association) supports the bill. My model shows that when a group supports a bill that is likely to pass, it should lobby its allies and the median voter of the chamber, to ensure passage at a position nearest their ideal point.

The spatial analysis suggests that passage is not the primary challenge we face; if the provision to restore NSF political science funding gets in a bill, it’s likely to pass. Rather the challenge is to get it in the bill. This means we need to lobby to get the provision in the bill, which means lobbying at the bill-formation and committee stages. Research shows that different lobbying tactics are useful at different stages of lobbying (see Wright 1996; Berry & Wilcox 2007).

  • Early participation at the bill formation stage is important to help establish a group as a player and stakeholder on an issue; APSA should organize now. 
  • Be visible. Make yourself and position known before
    bills get drafted.
  • APSA is not in a position of advantage because it seeks to defeat the status quo.
  • Build coalitions with other likeminded scientific organizations, but these might be more helpful
    during the floor stage rather than at the formation and committee
  • Use the network. Connections matter. Political scientists have many personal connections to the hill. Many worked there at one time. All political scientists should reach out to friends and former associates to create awareness and spread a message.

What message do we use?

There are two possible messages that supporters of political science might use to help restore the NSF program:

1.) congress should not be making judgments about the value of scientific endeavors ; this is a slippery slope, or 2.) political science research is worthwhile and important.

Both messages have merit, but the academic community should use a unified message when talking with policy makers and the second message is more likely to be productive. Congress passes judgment on what it should and should not fund all the time. If Congress cut funding for Parkinson’s disease research, the Parkinson’s community would be better served by showing the importance of the disease research rather than arguing that congress is choosing diabetes research over Parkinsons, and that’s just not fair. Similarly, the onus is now on the political science community to demonstrate why our research is important enough for public support.

Political scientists could use a centralized wiki-style website where scholars could catalogue their published and working papers and explain, in layman’s terms, the value of the research and its normative implications for policy.

Overcoming Collective Action Dilemmas

The academic community faces a significant collective action problem. It is difficult to estimate the number or percent of scholars who benefit, directly or indirectly, from NSF-supported research. It may not be a majority. By definition, the research funded through the political science program at NSF produces public goods for the academic community. If there’s one thing political scientists know, it’s that public goods result in collective action problems. Our inaction is perhaps what has led to the situation we now find ourselves in. We can solve this collective dilemma in a number of ways, but the best are to look to leaders who can help coordinate and lead our efforts. Of course, the APSA was organized, in part, for this purpose and has engaged in some advocacy. But the discipline would be well served to ask APSA to hire a lobbyist, if only temporarily, to help usher this line-item appropriation request through the appropriations process. We will require a knowledgeable lobbyist who is familiar with budget politics and social science
and who is well-connected on the Hill.

The take away:

  • Goals: Step 1—get the language to lift NSF
    restrictions incorporated into a FY 2014 appropriations bill; Step 2—build support
    for passage of the appropriations bill.
  • Organize now to develop a lobbying infrastructure that will be useful during the FY 2014 appropriations considerations in the fall of 2013.This includes developing a public website devoted to the cause that can be used to transparently post information about supportive lawmakers, catalogue scholars own pitches about the public utility of their research, and gather relevant data.
  • Target legislators known to be sympathetic to scientific research.
  • Develop a simple and coherent message about the value of political science research.
  • Develop a one-page summary that uses evidence from the discipline about how the research contributes to American society, improves our communities, educates our children, and makes democracy more successful.
  • In later stages (once the provision has been added to the bill), build coalitions with other disciplines to promote passage of the bill.
  • Solve our collective action problem by hiring experts, with solid connections and experience with appropriations, to represent our interests on this topic.
  • [Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]