Friday, July 6, 2012

We've Got Here is a Failure to Communicate

Political science, alas, has been facing much hostility as of late.  Selected out by a Republican for de-funding, attacked by one of our own in a highly publicized and reputed piece, it is time that we wielded our tools to figure out what is going on.  Thankfully, Huber, Dowling and Hill have done some social science: surveys with some random selection to assess how people feel about Political Science compared to Psychology and Computer Science.  They find that people in general support NSF funding for political science less than for the other two with independents and Republicans far more negative to political science (although Republicans are not that fond of NSF funding of any of these dark arts) and psychology is only slightly preferred.

The scholars asked a batch of questions with these findings about what kinds of stuff people will support, broken down by party id:
Support for Different Purposes of NSF Funding
  Overall      Democrats     Independents     Republicans    
To develop new technologies, products, and therapies 0.70 0.82 0.74 0.60
To improve basic understanding in the natural sciences 0.68 0.77 0.73 0.56
To train students  0.67 0.76 0.71 0.55
To improve basic understanding of human behavior 0.64 0.77 0.66 0.52
To support faculty and student research 0.63 0.73 0.67 0.52
Note: Cell entries are mean scale scores (weighted), where 1=Strongly support, .75=Somewhat support, .5=Neither support nor oppose, .25=Somewhat oppoes, 0=Strongly oppose

What we see here is an 7-8% preference for new technologies over faculty/student research or improve understanding of human behavior.  The authors conclude:
In the abstract, however, Independents are more supportive of understanding human behavior than they are of Political Science funding in particular, suggesting political scientists would do well to highlight their contributions in that area. Likewise, training students and supporting faculty and student research are reasonably popular among Independents. Perhaps the more general point is that it is hard to know what the mass public thinks Political Science funding supports, nor what elements of that work it finds objectionable. These results suggest, however, that the public, even Republicans, are more supportive of NSF funding of academic research than opposed, especially when evaluating the abstract goals that the NSF pursues. More effort highlighting these contributions, perhaps related to new technologies and the training of students, might be a fruitful way to foster support for continuing NSF funding for academic research in the social and behavioral sciences.
Interesting stuff.  I do think that political science is very much misunderstood, which may have something to do with this.  That is, we study politics, and politics is seen as dirty and unpopular.  In my experience, when I tell someone I study politics, their responses are usually focused on my ambition to be a politician or my interest in being a lawyer.  Given how much disrepute those two professions are in, it should not be surprising that we are not held in the highest esteem. 

To be clear, I think our discipline has been targeted by Republicans of late because of two basic realities--we are low-hanging fruit, and we end up presenting inconvenient truths.  First, because of the existing PR problem that people don't know what we do, we are easy to attack.  A politician hostile to any government funding of research finds it easiest to attack political scientists because we do not provide patents and other obvious markers of benefits to humankind.  I would not be surprised if Flake and others did some polling before they proposed attacking NSF funding of political science--that it plays better than cutting cancer research, for instance.  Second, we ask some damned inconvenient questions like: do politicians actually represent their constituents? what is the impact of foreign aid on repression? Why do people have political opinions that are counter to their interests? 

Aside from making fun of lawyers, what can we do?  In the short run, not a whole hell of a lot.  Everything we have borrowed/stolen from the cognitive and social psychologists tell us that it is awfully hard to persuade people to change their minds.  In the long run?  Well, we are all dead, or so the economists tell us.  In the medium run, we can perhaps do a better job of connecting our research to the problems in the world.  The whole academia/policy gap that we make much noise about--the more we bridge that gap and bridge it visibly, perhaps our added value can be more apparent. 

The good news is that we seem to be doing far more outreach now than in the past.  I have lost track on occasion of all the places on the net where I write stuff.  I am not alone--more and more political scientists are blogging, tweeting, and podcasting.  This is all to the good, as the more and more people see what we think, get snippets of research in more digestible forms, and hear our arguments, they can see that we are not aspiring politicians or lawyers but scholars seeking to understand the political world.  That politics is the making of decisions big and small that affect how communities are run (why Montreal's roads are akin to World War I battlefields), that determine that the response to the current economic crisis should be austerity, that shape interventions into Syria and other conflicts or not.

My realization tonight is that my blogging and my media appearances are not just for my own narcissism but are for the good of the profession (as long as I am not too mistaken).  The more the public sees political scientists providing some insight, some perspective, the more we can change the perception of what we are and why our work is worthy of some public support if governments are going to be in the business of supporting research.

Of course, we disagree with each other as much or more than economists disagree with each other.  That noise sometimes makes it hard to appreciate what we bring to the table.  All we can do is convey our perspectives and hope that people see some value in our views.  They don't have to agree.  They certainly will not much of the time.  But the more we step out of the ivory towers, the more we can influence how we are perceived.  Or at least, that is my wishful thinking for this night.

What else can we do to change how political science is viewed?

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