Political-science research does not 'waste taxpayer dollars'

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A major US vote recently blocked the NSF from funding political-science research. Ziyad Marar argues that the social sciences should not be marginalised

Across the world in the media, in policy and government discussions, and in our daily lives, there is evidence of social science at work. Whether it’s through analysis of a cultural phenomenon like crime, or a major international concern such as how climate change leads to changing lifestyles or inequality, social scientists help us understand cultures and behaviours.

Yet extraordinarily in the last couple of weeks in the USA, Representative Jeff Flake has managed to persuade a House majority (218-208) to vote to block the National Science Foundation from funding political science research. Flake argues that the NSF will now no longer ‘waste taxpayer dollars on a meritless programme.’

Social science is often ignorantly disparaged or marginalised because the impact of such work is often diffuse or long term. Social science is not a poor cousin to the natural sciences, suffering from a version of physics envy. Its problem domain is different, and so must be the way it justifies itself. It is publicly engaged and owes as much to history and philosophy as it does to natural science.

Despite their clear and widespread relevance, social scientists often have a problem getting their messages heard. As Lord Tony Giddens, former director of the London School of Economics and a member of the UK’s House of Lords, said last year in a speech to the Academy of Social Sciences in the UK: ‘most people in politics and the media do not know where they get their ideas from.’

Social science represents a very wide ranging set of approaches to what are known as ‘wicked problems’. These are social problems that are messy and ill structured such as: poverty; inequality; consumer behaviour; social cohesion; behaviour change; security; the causes of crime; and social determinants of health.

Part of the problem comes from the wide-ranging nature of the disciplines, subject matter and problem domains. Social science can encompass everything from psychology to international relations, from social theory to well being. But while the methods of study used and subjects vary, there is also a strong common thread: explaining our social world.

All of these ‘wicked problems’ and more are major national and international priorities. They don’t tend to have right or wrong answers but often have better or worse answers. Often the research will cross over from facts to values, from description to explanation and back again, and will not be reliably predictive. This speaks directly to the debate on NSF funding going on in the USA.

Indeed, political scientist Jacqueline Stevens observed in a self-critical op ed in the New York Times: ‘It’s an open secret in my discipline: in terms of accurate political predictions (the field’s benchmark for what counts as science), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money.' (Political Scientists Are Lousy Forecasters, 23 June 2012

Similarly, when Queen Elizabeth II visited the London School of Economics and asked why no one had predicted the economic meltdown she had a point (although Gillian Tett of the Financial Times, who did predict it, gave the credit for her holistic understanding to her PhD in social anthropology). Social science is not a watertight exercise. As a Nobel prize-winning physicist once said, ‘understanding physics is child’s play, but understanding child’s play is a nightmare.’

But all this means social science should be a bigger priority not a smaller one. People don’t argue that we should not study history or economics just because it is hard to do so scientifically. The enriching effects of social sciences on our culture may be long term or diffuse, but potentially momentous (in the same way that Shelley dubbed poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the future’). Surely we want the major issues of the day given the scholarly scrutiny they deserve, however difficult they are to study.

Ziyad Marar (Twitter: @ZiyadMarar) is global publishing director of SAGE