Field Study: Just How Relevant Is Political Science?





After Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, this month proposed prohibiting the National Science Foundation from “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects,” political scientists rallied in opposition, pointing out that one of this year’s Nobel winners had been a frequent recipient of the very program now under attack.

Yet even some of the most vehement critics of the Coburn proposal acknowledge that political scientists themselves vigorously debate the field’s direction, what sort of questions it pursues, even how useful the research is.

Much of the political science work financed by the National Science Foundation is both rigorous and valuable, said Jeffrey C. Isaac, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, where one new winner of the Nobel in economic science, the political scientist Elinor Ostrom, teaches. “But we’re kidding ourselves if we think this research typically has the obvious public benefit we claim for it,” he said. “We political scientists can and should do a better job of making the public relevance of our work clearer and of doing more relevant work.”

Mr. Isaac is the editor of Perspectives on Politics, a journal that was created by the field’s professional organization to bridge the divide after a group of political scientists led a revolt against the growing influence of statistical methods and mathematics-based models in the discipline. In 2000 an anonymous political scientist who called himself Mr. Perestroika roused scores of colleagues to protest the organization, the American Political Science Association, and its flagship journal, The American Political Science Review, arguing that the two were marginalizing scholars who focused on traditional research based on history, culture and archives.


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